Globally, women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) jobs are highly ambitious and driven, but gender bias and hostile work cultures make them feel stalled and hasten their decisions to quit sooner than their male counterparts. This feeling is equally prevalent in India, where 81 per cent of women perceive a gender bias in performance evaluation.
The latest Kelly Global Workforce Insights (KGWI) survey on Women in STEM, found that women in India tend to drop out of workforce at key phases in their lives, most notably around childbearing years and later at mid-management levels. The most significant driver is the ‘double burden syndrome’ of women struggling to balance work and family in a culture where both men and women feel the family and household duties are primarily the woman’s responsibility.
While women represent 46 per cent of all enrolled undergraduate students in STEM, not many continue to pursue careers. “41 per cent of women in technology companies leave after 10 years of experience, compared to 17 per cent of men,” said Kamal Karanth, Managing Director, Kelly Services & Kelly OCG India “This is a very worrying scenario.”
Consequently, there are few women left to fill roles at the top, KGWI survey says. This glaring disparity is clearly visible in publicly traded companies. As early as 2015, 12 per cent of the companies had failed to fulfill the mandate of having at least one woman representative on their board. Of the 50 companies in the NIFTY index, only five had two female directors. 53 per cent met this directive by appointing directors that were either wives or sisters of executives and not really independent members.
The study also captured some of the key experiences felt by women at the workplace in India. While a resounding 77 per cent of female workers complained of double standards in training opportunities for women, 76 per cent believed that men have a genetic advantage in math and science and 66 per cent felt that women would never get top positions irrespective of their performance.
An intriguing aspect that KGWI survey identified was the level of confidence felt by women in STEM. Globally, women feel less confident in their roles than their male counterparts—and this confidence gap extends across all key STEM skill sets and career stages.
This gap is most pronounced in engineering, followed by science. The confidence gap in STEM women is driven by a number of factors, ranging from too many “lack of” situations, to bias, to isolation.
Addressing the challenge of retaining women in STEM, Karanth said, “It takes a multi-pronged approach to create meaningful, lasting changes in the retention of women in STEM fields. One-off programs are insufficient.” According to the study, the core components of retention are top leadership support, institutional accountability and emphasis on supervisory relationships. “Flex-time and other family-friendly policies are critical, but must be offered to all employees, not just women. And, most critically, taking advantage of flexible arrangements must be actively encouraged and even modelled by both direct managers and senior leadership.”
Why Work-Life design is critical to retaining women:
While offering flexible work arrangements is important to women of all ages and levels, it is especially critical for mid-career women who are typically in their prime child-bearing and family-raising years. In a different way, STEM women in executive roles are looking for limits on work hours more than male counterparts, perhaps because they are seeking employer support that demonstrates they do not have to continue to prove themselves in typically male dominated STEM cultures. “Even with work-life balance being a top priority, women in STEM are primarily attracted to employers that will develop them and their careers.”
The pressure to improve diversity as work:
Companies across all STEM-intensive verticals are under pressure to close the gender gap and increase the number of women in leadership positions. This is crucial to a company’s overall visibility score as it helps recruitment by sending highly visible signal to potential talent that women are valued in the company. It also boosts employee morale and engagement and supports leadership development efforts when women in leadership serve as role models, executive sponsors and or mentors for less experienced STEM women.
Recommendations for boosting Female STEM talent
The STEM companies that are leading the charge towards a more gender-diverse workforce have one thing in common—they take a strategic, holistic approach to closing the gender gap. Key areas to focus on would be in recruitment selection, mentoring and development, support for competing responsibilities, peer support programmes and fair performance evaluation and promotion. Cross-industry solutions recommended by experts include more female role models, executive sponsors, and open discussion/education to decrease and diversity gap and increase confidence among women. “To boost hiring and retention of female STEM talent, companies must start at the top,” said Karanth “Executives and those in leadership positions need to ‘walk the talk’ to be successful.”