Technology firms and research institutions need to invest time and money early on in the lifecycle to encourage more and more women — from diverse backgrounds — to take up STEM careers
India produces the highest percentage of women STEM graduates globally, over 40%, but only 14% of STEM jobs are held by women. When we consider leadership roles, it further drops to low single digits. This has drastic consequences, not just on how technology businesses run but how it shapes the world.
For instance, “at tech giants like Google and Facebook, only 10-15 percent AI experts and researchers are women,” says Swedish Science Counsellor Fanny von Heland. This has a direct impact on how algorithms work. Inherent biases and invisible discrimination are bound to creep into an environment where there is no diversity or representation.
On the other hand, in every conversation I’ve had with hiring and HR leaders, the one thing I often hear is: There isn’t enough of a talent pool of women to hire from. This is a horrific catch-22. Organizations have (finally) understood the value of diversity and are willing to hire more women, but there aren’t enough of us out there!
As we look deeper into the issue, we see that the problem is more social and cultural. I was recently reading that 85% of boys are interested in pursuing STEM careers, compared to 57% of girls. The primary reason is that boys’ parents are more supportive of their children’s ambitions than of girls, who “feel that work environment in these fields is less conducive for females.”
Can we blame them, though?
As a young girl growing up around the Centre for Atomic Research in Kalpakkam — my father worked there — I was surrounded by STEM. The conversations between our parents revolved around science, innovation, and a bright future. Bring-Your-Child-To-Work Days were about going into the research centre to see the huge reactors and the possibilities they open up. The words ‘fission’ and ‘fusion’ were part of our early vocabulary. Growing up in an environment like that, choosing a STEM career was a natural choice for me.
This isn’t the case for most students, though. Girl children themselves haven’t had the opportunity to be excited by the possibilities of science. And their parents haven’t interacted with women who’ve made great strides in the field. Parents, who obviously mean well for their girl children, haven’t seen evidence that women can and do have it all.
I believe this is the root cause of the talent shortage we’re facing today. And technology organizations need to address this, over the long-term, at the grassroots level. Here are my suggestions.
Invest CSR money in STEM education for girl children
Even today, organizations invest CSR money in educating the girl child. However, most of this is in the primary school stage, with little or no impact on STEM fields. I believe that if some of that CSR investment is channelled exclusively to STEM education, girl children will get a personal experience of what’s possible. As someone who grew up around science, I believe when children see what STEM can bring to the world, they will be more likely to pursue it when they grow up.
You can, in fact, see this in Covestro’s #STEM4Girls initiative aimed at increasing the scientific temperament of schoolgirls. In this video, you’ll notice the spark in the eyes of every girl when she sees science making magical things happen!
Spend time with your future team members
Channelling CSR money to new initiatives can be a long-term goal taking months, if not years, to happen. But community engagement can happen today, even without organizational alignment, if necessary.
For instance, women leaders must regularly spend time with schoolgirls talking about their careers, telling stories about their personal experiences in STEM etc. When a girl child sees that there are women who’ve made it in STEM fields, it gives her an anchor for her dreams. When she sees someone else having achieved their dreams, her own no longer seems unachievable. Most importantly, when she sees a direct relationship between the knowledge she’s gaining and the career you’re having, she is more likely to hang on to it.
However, while pursuing initiatives such as these, two things are important:
- Go beyond the city school your children attend — women aren’t a homogenous unit; we need women from diverse backgrounds to strengthen our teams
- Engage with parents as much as you engage with children — they need to believe in their children’s ability to make successful careers too
Prevent talent loss
Women leave, or at least pause, their careers for marriage, childbearing and other personal reasons. This is a significant loss of exceptional talent that appears unavoidable. However, organizations that invest energy in creating welcoming workplaces can overturn this trend quite easily. Back-to-work programs are already gaining popularity. But just inviting women back to work won’t be enough; organizations need to invest in setting them up for success.
The point is: Organizations need to create an environment that both welcomes and cherishes women returning from breaks.
This is just the beginning, though. Throughout the lifecycle of STEM careers, we are losing women: From fewer girls choosing STEM education to women dropping out of jobs to have children. Even in entrepreneurship, fewer women are launching their own startups or getting funding — in the last year, women-founded/co-founded firms were a grand 16.7%!
Enterprises seeking diversity, equity, and inclusion in their organizations need to go far beyond hiring initiatives. They need to contribute to grassroots-level change. The future is, quite literally, in our hands.
The article has been written by Nandini Sabanayagam, Vice President, ANSR