As more and more business and manufacturing processes revolve around technology, the demand for people with the necessary skills is growing. To assure the supply of qualified people filling those positions, we have to stop thinking in terms in terms of stereotypes and clear the way for women to get on board.
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The problem is not that women aren’t trained in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. “Women have earned 57% of all bachelor's degrees and about half of all science and engineering (S&E) bachelor's degrees since the late 1990s,” according to the latest figures from the National Science Foundation. The problem is that those percentages don’t translate into the same level of representation at work.
In fact, women are still far outnumbered at engineering positions at tech companies. You can see the numbers of engineers in actual companies updated regularly on a spreadsheet in Tracy Chou's Women in Tech list. Though the numbers vary, the average representation for women engineers at the companies listed appears to be near 20% to 25%.
The gap between the sexes grows higher up the hierarchy. The Gender Divide in Tech-Intensive Industries put out in 2014 demonstrated that women with MBAs with tech qualifications were still far less likely to work in the industry than their male counterparts. Perhaps part of the reason is that women ae far more likely to be placed in entry level jobs, at the rate of 55% in contrast to the 39% for men. Women MBAs also were more likely to leave the tech industry than their male counterparts at the rate of 53% to 31%.
In “Won’t You Stay? How to Keep Women in Tech Careers” Janet Foutty, chairman and CEO, Deloitte U.S. pointed out that losing women in these roles has serious ramifications. Aside from the benefit that women gain from qualifying for higher salaries in STEM careers, their participation is essential to maintaining a stream of STEM talent for industry. The solution she proposes for to not just attracting but keeping women in tech is to take a three-pronged approach.
The first step is with bringing girls in contact with role models and programs to get them on track. That’s the goal of nonprofit organizations like Girls Who Code, which partners with a number of corporations. While that kind of inspiration may encourage girls to pursue a degree in STEM, they need more than that to keep the course at the career level.
One essential component to women succeeding in tech is connecting with a mentor. The importance of mentorship for women has been noted by others, including, Monica Eaton-Cardone who pointed out that men have benefitted from the fact “that men tend to take on mentor-protégé relationships much more readily than women." For that reason, she urged women “to make a point of seeking out opportunities to share experience and knowledge with young people in the industry.”
In an emailed communication, Melissa Henley, director of marketing communications at Laserfiche, said she agrees that women have an obligation to reach out to help other women. Fostering mentorship culture appears at Laserfiche, a tech company founded by a woman, Nien-Ling Wacker, who served as a role models to her employees, including Henley.
Laserfiche is unusual in that women fill over half its director-level positions, and they are encouraged to serve as mentors. Esther Chow, senior manager, Strategic Alliances at Laserfiche, said, “our company offers plenty of opportunity to connect with aspiring young professionals looking for career direction.”
Henley observed mentors can serve as role models and offer guidance on both large and small matters:
Representation matters—often we need to see someone like us before we can see ourselves in a particular career or industry. For women in STEM, it’s often even more difficult because you may be the only woman on the team. You may have no one to turn to when you have questions about how to navigate management issues, work/life balance, or even something as simple as what to wear to a conference.
The mentor is a huge source of support, but the woman who is going to make it in tech still needs someone else to go to bat for her. Foutty identifies that as the role of a “sponsor,” the person willing to “‘bang the table’” to push for the candidate’s entry into the job, project or promotion.
One more component that she identifies as necessary for success is fostering a culture in which women’s voices hold as much sway on teams as that of men. This is not just about fairness but about quantifiable business gains. Foutty referenced a report that drew on studies that showed “diverse perspectives from both men and women increase innovation, productivity, and competitiveness.”
Giving women equal opportunity to work in the tech field then is not just a women’s issue; it’s a part of building up the skill component of the electronic supply chain.