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Closing the gap - encouraging women in STEM, from early years to the workplace

Marne Martin Profile picture for user Marne Martin July 17, 2023
Marne Martin, Chief Strategy Officer and President at IFS, explains what can be done to ensure women are empowered to succeed and grow in a STEM career.

Women working in STEM careers © Martin-dm - Canva
(© Martin-dm - Canva)

The business benefits of diversity cannot be overlooked – having a diverse workforce produces better business outcomes, evidently performing better than those without. Fortunately, the technology industry is experiencing a steady increase in the number of women in leadership, which presents greater potential for long-term equity.

However, while the tech industry is paving the way forward for innovation and technical advancements, it still has a long way to go in terms of fully embracing and empowering women.

The current state of affairs

While research from Deloitte shows that the global tech workforce has seen a 6.9% increase in women's participation and an 11.7% rise in their representation in technical roles from 2019 to 2022, women in tech still encounter obstacles in attaining and retaining leadership positions.

Aside from issues like the gender pay gap, McKinsey finds that only 52 women are promoted to managerial roles for every 100 men. With new reports showing that more than 50% of women in the technology industry are likely to quit before the age of 35, organizations need to act fast and implement cultural changes to retain more woman, encourage their ambition, and also promote more balanced promotion and mentoring opportunities.

Actively encouraging young girls into STEM

It's important to acknowledge that businesses aren't solely responsible for tackling unconscious bias. Childhood experiences often contribute to its development and it starts very early in homes and in schools. Therefore, it's imperative for parents, local schools and government authorities to work together in empowering young girls to pursue STEM career paths and eliminate prejudice before they even enter the working world. I grew up with a mother who prized education and accomplishment plus I had natural leadership, aptitude, and resiliency to lean on.

Looking back at my own educational journey, I learned to read very early, and was always good at math and science, identified by the time I was seven. My elementary school already had specialized programs teaching biology, algebra, and chess by the time I was eight. While some of my middle school classes were more repetitive to that program when I moved schools, I then in high school had access to Advanced Placement classes where I could take college level STEM classes during my high school years. This positioned me well for a major in international finance and economics and, later, an MBA/ Masters in International Management. Yet, without the encouragement and support I experienced in my home life and developing years at school, I might have chosen another path altogether or not felt that I could achieve something that no one else in my family and no mentors during my younger years had done.

Although girls generally perform as well as, if not better than, boys in science and math standardized tests, women are notably less likely to pursue careers in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, except for life sciences. It has always been the right thing to do to encourage gender diversity in STEM, but now it is an imperative given resource and talent shortages in our ever-more digital world.

Children at any age, but particularly during their early development, are susceptible to experiencing both implicit and explicit gender bias, which can lead to harmful gender stereotypes about success in STEM fields, confidence, and resiliency in what might often be male-dominated environments. These stereotypes can discourage women from pursuing careers in STEM and also contribute to the high rate of women leaving the industry at a later stage as pressure comes from aging parents, children, competition in the workplace, etc.

Education providers play a crucial role in both a girl’s development and confidence, and it is imperative that they actively challenge gender stereotypes by providing programs that inspire women to pursue careers in IT and STEM.

The role of technology leaders and businesses

Technology businesses are responsible for taking action and empowering their female employees. Reports show that even today, one in three women working in tech has experienced gender bias in their workplace (I would expect the other two woman were perhaps afraid to say as I don’t think any woman has lived an entire life without some gender bias). Combined with issues around pay, harassment and working benefits – more and more women are either actively pursuing new roles or leaving the industry entirely, which is a problem for the industry as well as a cultural dilemma given the otherwise high participation rates for women in the workplace.

The truth is, if technology organizations don’t want to deter women, and there are more woman working in technology than ever before, but we haven’t “crossed the chasm” yet, more work needs to be done to showcase inclusivity and diversity. And not only by gender, but by socio-economic and other factors influencing who gets access to STEM education at a level sufficient to become a practitioner or join the tech industry.

Across the globe, major tech companies have publicly pledged to enhance gender parity by boosting the number of women in leadership and technical roles. Yet despite this increased focus on gender equality, many organizations lack a supportive culture that enables their current female staff to advance into higher positions of authority, and you see this primarily in the levels of VP and above, including on both public and private Board and Private Equity sponsor operating partners.

McKinsey research highlights that failing to promote and retain women in technical roles who are in the early stages of their careers directly impacts their readiness for senior roles. It's worth noting that a higher percentage of women, specifically 44%, viewed their initial promotion as the most critical milestone in their career growth, compared to 32% of men who felt the same way. Interestingly, when it came to advanced technical skills, only 13% of men saw this as a crucial factor in their career progression, while 23% of women placed a high value on their technical abilities and their impact on their professional advancement. This seems to indicate that women see themselves as pursuing a management track, but then aren’t getting the opportunity to get into team leadership or P&L management positions.

With clear evidence that providing opportunities for growth and development can greatly enhance the success of women in tech leadership – it's crucial for organizations to implement mentoring programs that encourage women to pursue leadership roles and aim for greater ambitions.

The power of mentorship and ERGs – a positive step forward

The lack of proactive support for women interested in pursuing technology careers continues even after they have secured jobs in technology companies, or other technical roles.

Both men and women in senior leadership have an obligation to provide access to new opportunities for women in tech – and mentoring is one of the top business strategies to help close the gap in technology leadership. But it also requires the mentor knowing what their mentee needs and being active enough to be able to facilitate the confidence or opportunities needed for growth and promotion.

Mentorship is a mutually beneficial career asset – the roles of the mentor and mentee can be an invaluable source of support and confidence for women in technology. Both in turn, aiding key skills and enhancing opportunities for growth and leadership.

Not only is mentorship beneficial to the individual contributors, but it also impacts the wider business and employee retention. Studies show that 75% of women in technology who had strong role models/mentors remained at their company. Clearly, establishing mentorship programs is one way for companies to enhance the retention of women in their organizations. Yet according to Deloitte, less than a quarter of TMT companies have taken these steps.

IFS’s commitment to equity

IFS has taken several steps to promote further diversity, equity and inclusion in our own workplace. While women make up 35% of our workforce, we knew there was more that we could do – so we did. We set a goal of having 30.5% female executives, directors, officers and managers by 2027. At the end of 2022 we were at 28%.

In 2022, we launched our new ERG, IFS Global Women – an inclusive community open to all genders to build networks, share learning opportunities, create awareness of issues women face in the workplace, and take action to address the barriers faced by current and future generations.

As an executive sponsor of the ERG, I take great pride in actively engaging with and empowering our employees, both for the benefit of our business and also to lift all in our industry up. Sharing my experiences and offering advice, support and opportunities for other women is hugely rewarding for me most certainly, and also it seems so for the woman at IFS. However, this group and me being a 'light' doesn’t alleviate the organizational burden we have to actively develop and promote woman in all countries and functions around the world.

What lies ahead

We know there is still much more to do to inspire wider industry changes to address our talent shortage and specifically gender diversity / women dropping out of the workplace challenges. However, with increasingly supportive cultures becoming fostered in many organisations, and change happening in both education and the industry, I believe that the future has never looked brighter or more welcoming for women in technology. But change doesn’t happen on its own, it is our continued effort and encouragement that creates it.

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