Beyond Encouragement: Steps Toward Parity For Women Leaders in STEM

Moira Muldoon writes that moving toward parity for women in STEM careers is doable.

The push is on: From the White House to the National Girls Collaborative Project people are working toward more gender parity in STEM fields. However, recent studies suggest that it’s not enough to encourage girls and women to go into STEM fields. STEM workplaces need to treat them fairly once they get there.

Evidence shows bias still exists against women leaders in STEM.  For example, a widely cited 2012 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences  study found that science faculty favored male students. Even more interesting: New research published by the Academy shows that men in science are less likely to believe the evidence of gender bias is valid.

 It’s worth noting, however, that the National Academy of Sciences has also published a recent study showing a 2:1 preference for women candidates for assistant professorships.  How and when bias exists and affects STEM hiring is not a cut and dried issue.

 Still, these studies, while fascinating, are literally academic: they’re about what happens in the classroom and university.  Moreover, the issue of hiring doesn’t necessarily address other complicated issues that impact women in STEM, including possible harassment, women receiving less research funding, and other workplace challenges that affect women’s STEM careers.

So, what can be done?

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, researcher Joan C. Williams argues that there are five major biases against women in STEM related to gender and race; she also argues that using objective metrics, identifying bias, and then implementing  “bias interrupters” can mitigate the problem.

For example, Williams cites research by Andreas Leibbrandt and John A. List that investigated whether men were better salary negotiators than women. She points out that Leibbrandt and List’s experiment showed that simply saying “salary negotiable” on a job description “closed the pay gap by 45 percent.”

“This experimental approach is a classic example of a bias interrupter: It changed the basic business system in a way that stopped a pattern of bias in its tracks. And it did so without talking about bias at all (or even raising it),” Williams writes in the Harvard Business Review. Another suggestion Williams has is “to the extent possible, give hiring managers blinded résumés, so they can’t tell whether the applicant is a man or a woman. Track whether this practice changes hiring numbers.” Experiment, she writes, and figure out what works.

Shaunacy Ferro writes in Popular Science that women need to be seen and heard: “Invite women to speak at conferences and events,” she writes, and argues that people in STEM should cite relevant female colleague’s reports.

In its 2010 landmark study, the American Association of University Women shows that simply being aware of possible bias may help: “If women and men in science and engineering know that this bias exists, they can work to interrupt the unconscious thought processes that lead to it.”

In the STEM workforce, women are underrepresented, comprising only 24 percent of the total. The STEM workforce needs women for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to the fact that women make up about 50 percent of the population, and, as the White House Office of Science and Technology policy says, ignoring them ignores half the people who could innovate. More importantly, having diversity on a team can lead to better solutions. And every problem can benefit from having the best solution possible.