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4 Ways to Encourage More Women to Enter STEM

May 31, 2019
Women are poised to become the new competitive edge in manufacturing.

We live in a time where digitalization has impacted every industry and fundamentally changed the way we work for the better. Tech advancements and investments into artificial intelligence have stimulated job creation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), engineers are expected to be in demand—creating more than 140,000 jobs between now and 2026. An even bigger trend to watch is the nearly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs that will need to be filled over the next decade, an industry that often intersects with engineering through innovation. With so much growth and opportunity, it’s a great time to be working in STEM.

For employers looking to hire in the field, however, the outlook is a bit more grim. Jobs are being created faster than employers can fill them, highlighting the acute lack of skilled workers in the field. In order to get around this talent shortage, employers will have to start looking toward untapped talent pools to fill the gaps created by this increased demand for STEM talent. And employing more women, one of STEM’s most underrepresented groups, could be the answer.

The State of Women in STEM

It’s been said that “women are the largest untapped reservoir of talent in the world,” and according to the data, it’s not just a saying—it’s a fact. Between 2011 and 2016 there was a 38% increase in STEM-fundamental Bachelor’s degrees awarded to women, and that includes engineering. Yet surprisingly, women still make up just 13% of the existing engineering workforce. Meanwhile, the manufacturing industry has been riddled with the same dilemma.

However, that’s not to say that industry decision-makers haven’t been trying to remedy the problem. In fact, within the last two years, the industry (in partnership with schools) has taken steps to improve enrollment efforts of women. Game-changers like the Manufacturing Institute have promoted initiatives like STEP (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Production) Ahead, which serves to mentor and recognize women, while also leading research efforts tackling this important topic. Programs like this one are changing the perception of women in STEM and catching the eyes of women everywhere.

Although there has been great strides toward progress in these predominantly male-dominated industries, the ultimate end goal still remains a bit out of reach. One of the top 10 engineering degrees for women is industrial and manufacturing systems engineering, according to the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE), yet women’s talents continue to be underutilized once they hit the workforce. So, what gives?

It’s clear that there’s still a large disconnect between the school and the workplace. In order to resolve the STEM talent gap, the problem must be tackled from all fronts, and that includes schools, organizations, research institutions and the companies themselves—otherwise, the needle on progress won’t move. But in order for any of this change to take place, it needs to first start at the top.

For women to feel truly welcome in STEM workplaces, they need to gain more seats at the leadership table to fill gaps that companies may often miss on their own.

Make a Seat for Women at the Executive Table

Since women make up a small portion of the overall STEM workforce, it’s no surprise that many work environments in these fields leave a lot to be desired in terms of inclusiveness. In fact, 30% of women who have left the engineering profession cite organizational climate as the main reason. To put it simply, you can’t expect any industry run by men and governed entirely by an all-male boardroom to be able to think like a woman, much less advocate for their interests. For women to feel truly welcome in STEM workplaces, they need to gain more seats at the leadership table to fill gaps that companies may often miss on their own.

How many women have leadership positions in your organization? Have your existing female employees even had a chance to break the glass ceiling, let alone crack it? Is it something that your organization has made a top priority? If you answered in the negative, you’re at risk of losing the already limited number of talented women in your organization to a more inclusive competitor, or worse, pushing them away from the field altogether. Fifty-eight percent of workers today agree that their companies don’t currently have enough growth opportunities for them to stay long-term. To get ahead of this, take a hint from California’s Silicon Valley, which just recently (and very publicly) passed a law requiring women to be on corporate boards to improve the state of women across every industry.

Aim for Female Employees to Have Longer Job Tenure

Overall, women have made tremendous strides in education and have made their impact on the national workforce in many great ways. However, it’s not the same tune in STEM-related fields, as progress continues to be slow. Although there is an uptick in engineering degrees earned by women in recent years, the ones who enter the workforce rarely stay. Only 30% of women who earn engineering degrees are still working in the industry 20 years later. Because of this, the Society of Women Engineers recently reported the number of women in engineering fields has remained stagnant for nearly two decades. There’s a multitude of layers as to why, and many women experience different hurdles depending on the STEM industry they’re in. 

In order to address them, businesses will have to take an honest look at their current approach and hone their recruitment and retention strategies to encompass more diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives and weave them into their overall brand message. Companies may recruit hard and engage hard, but it won’t mean anything if they can’t attract future leaders of tomorrow.

Common themes across all workplaces play a huge role in the rate of turnover the engineering industry is facing today, and businesses would do well to keep them in mind when revamping their inclusion strategies.

Here are four considerations to think about when you’re drafting your D&I strategy. 

1. Women are lacking in leadership roles. Putting a woman on your board of executives is a great first step, but the career pathways of women in your organization need to be made visible. Start by identifying and promoting worthy women employees, not just because of their gender, but because of the skills they possess and accomplishments they’ve accumulated over the years. More than half (61%) of women engineers report that they have to prove themselves repeatedly to get the same level of respect and recognition as their male colleagues.

By identifying and developing female leaders, this shows existing women in your workforce that you’re giving them the credit they deserve and that you respect them just as much as their male counterparts. Implement coed leadership-development programs with a focus on the unique experiences of each gender in the workplace. By understanding the challenges that both men and women face at work every day, comradery among the sexes will improve, and that will translate to stronger, more high-performing teams in the end. Additionally, create a program that requires women and male leadership to engage with engineering students. This can improve company morale and change the perception of female engineers in the eyes of students.

A non-inclusive workplace culture can create roadblocks that create unseen tension among employees of all sexes and hinder a team’s ability to collaborate.

2. A non-inclusive workplace culture. Let’s face it: Many engineering companies are male-dominated, which can create unwelcoming environments for women as a result. If companies are going to get serious about increasing the number of women in the workforce, and truly have an inclusive workplace, they need to make sure everyone feels welcome and included.

Making workplace culture more inclusive can be difficult considering the state of our current social climate. A recent study from Randstad US shows younger employees and male employees are generally less comfortable around the opposite sex at work, which makes sense given that discussions around sexual harassment have risen to the forefront of our public discourse. In fact, 46% of men hold negative views of movements like #MeToo and the #FeministMovement. Roadblocks like these can create unseen tension among employees of all sexes and hinder a team’s ability to collaborate.

Prevent this from happening at your workplace by creating team-building strategies and “get-to-know-you” sessions, and conduct as much business as possible in open forums so workers don’t break off into cliques. This will improve company work culture over time and help your workers feel more comfortable interacting with employees of the opposite sex.

3. Benefits and pay aren’t exactly female-friendly. This is a frequently-discussed women’s issue, and after all these years, it’s still prevalent. Women do not earn the same amount as their male counterparts. Actually, female engineers earn 10% less than their male colleagues overall. Help bridge this gap by committing to equal pay practices in your workplace. If you manage to do so successfully, your company will become a magnet for attracting the kind of diverse talent it needs to achieve its goals.

Another dynamic to consider is offering benefits that support working women. More often than not, women have to balance dedication to their jobs with dedication to their families. Some women even feel pressured to choose. For instance, in one study, more women than men reported wanting better parental leave policies (women: 22% vs. men: 14%) and better onsite childcare (women: 15% vs. men: 6%). Some can argue they are forced to choose work or family and they can’t have both, while men don’t necessarily have this added pressure.

Consider offering benefits that help to retain and engage women at career points where work-life balance becomes more complex, especially if they are valued employees. This is why it can’t be reiterated enough that women should also be a part of the conversation to see what’s valued across the aisle. It won’t necessarily be a simple answer for every employer, but in hearing other viewpoints, you can determine what works best for your organization. And it’s not just about maternity leave, either—companies should also prioritize continued learning and development programs to help female employees diversify their skills and break out of career plateaus. This will improve employee engagement and keep innovative thinkers on their toes while also helping them embark on new career journeys.

4. Lack of new talent coming through the door. We’ve heard it time and time again that stimulating the STEM talent pipeline is the answer—but what does that look like exactly? Gender roles play a major factor in societal views and this impacts how children form attitudes about the careers that they might become interested in.

Create programs where you can partner with schools—from elementary up through the college level—and show students real-world examples of what an engineer does in the manufacturing sector. A large majority of  students surveyed (76%) say they don’t know a lot about what engineers do. It’s great hands-on learning for students. Witnessing male and female ambassadors from STEM backgrounds can help feed their curiosity in the field and inspire them to pursue STEM careers in the future. For young girls, seeing women represented in the industry matters significantly, considering that girls are 34% more likely than boys to say that STEM jobs are hard to understand. Seeing female ambassadors can play an important role in improving girls’ perceptions of their own capabilities when the time comes for them to choose their own careers.

Another way to challenge commonly held perceptions about engineering is to talk about what engineers do with the community. Many people outside the industry have no idea what an engineer actually does, let alone the vast amounts of STEM opportunities that are available within the manufacturing sector. Visit classrooms with employees or host a field trip to a plant. The opportunities are endless when it comes to sparking innovation and creativity in students, and the experience can leave a lasting impression on everyone involved.

“Don't just stand for the success of other women—insist on it.” - Gail Blanke

Let’s Get to Work

There’s been a lot of conversation surrounding women in STEM lately, and as Equal Pay Day (April 2) approaches, the conversation is only going to get louder. Within the past year, nearly every industry has been impacted by women and the gender issues they face. Like Gail Blanke once said, “Don't just stand for the success of other women—insist on it.” Don’t just say you’re an equal-opportunity employer; show that you are through your policies, work culture, and best practices. Only then will you nurture an environment that is conducive to both women and men. This isn’t about uplifting one to put another down, but about creating a truly equal work environment that empowers all and allows business to thrive.

Angie Keller is the senior vice president at Randstad Engineering, which specializes in the sourcing and placement of temporary and direct hire professionals in engineering, energy, utilities, petrochemical, manufacturing, information technology, and other technologies industries. Keller’s role leads sales and tenured recruiting teams within Randstad Engineering. Randstad US secures and manages a workforce of more than 100,000 people for thousands of clients each week.

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