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CEO & Founder, Innovation Coach at Improvides
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We need to get more women involved in STEM subjects

We need to get more women involved in STEM subjects

As Intel announced that they will be investing $300million to help address the diversity gap in Technology and Gaming, Improvides considers the gap’s impact on your innovation ability.

Here’s a quick challenge for you: Think of any three people who since the year 2000 have developed something truly innovative and successful.

It could be anyone, from a hot Silicon Valley startup founder, a scientist, designer or engineer.

Ok, do you have your list of 3 people?

Good.

How many of them are women?

In fact, is there a single woman on the list?

If not, can you name any woman who has accomplished something special in a scientific field, or has been involved in engineering something successful (either digital or physical).

A lot of people will unfortunately find this challenge difficult, and it points to a fundamental issue faced around the world which is severely limiting companies’ ability to innovate, economies to grow and the gender gap to narrow.

It’s the problem of the gender gap in STEM careers (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). The simple fact is that in most societies, women make up a disproportionately small percentage of the workforce in roles and careers based on these subjects, which are often the roles which actually develop new innovations from the ground up.

Simply put, this gender gap, if it exists in your company, is reducing your success rate at innovating and staying competitive.

What’s the problem?

One important thing to remember is that like it or not, there is still a gender gap in the majority of developed countries when it comes to how much women are paid compared to men. The most report on the Gender Pay Gap produced by PriceWaterhouseCoopers showed that while some countries like Ireland (3.5%), New Zealand (4.2%) and Poland (7.2%) had closed the gap, some other developed countries like Japan (27.4%) and South Korea (37.5%) still had alarmingly high differences.

This is a complicated issue which many intricacies based on history and lifestyle, but it’s not the difference in pay that is necessarily going to cause an issue for your innovativeness.

The problem is the even larger difference in the proportion of women involved in some of today’s most innovative work.

Specifically, how frighteningly low it is.

In the UK, women make just up an estimated 8.7% of engineers.

Women make up only 25% of research scientists in industry.

And a recent survey from 200 technology companies in Silicon Valley showed that the average proportion of female engineers (those staff actually developing new code or products) was 15%. Several of the highest profile Silicon Valley companies, including Apple and Amazon, actually refused to release government-mandated data on their internal diversity breakdown, although the closest they come is to admit that 30% of all their staff are female.

The counterpoint is that two of the most influential people in Silicon Valley are women: Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook) and Marissa Mayer (CEO of Yahoo). However, they are both in management positions, not in the actual engineering departments of their companies.

And much like Intel is doing by investing in their diversity drive, many large companies openly admit that these figures are not good enough.

What is causing this issue?

The issue here is primarily one of supply against demand. Specifically, a lack of supply of female STEM talent rather than a lack of demand.

It appears that the issue develops in the last few years of school. Up until the school exams at age 16, many girls outperform their male counterparts at STEM subjects. But after this age, going into university, they are less likely to continue studying these subjects. Therefore, even though more women are going to university than men, they are taking fewer STEM degrees.

In fact, in 2014 UoC Berkeley made mainstream news when its Introduction to Computer Science course had 104 male students and 106 females, the first time there had ever been a higher proportion of women. This was so unique that it was considered newsworthy, which is in itself quite sad.

After this introductory class, the proportion of women continuing to study the subject fell down to a level of 12.9%.

Women also drop out of STEM career paths faster. A 2006 study of chemistry majors in the UK showed that while in their first year, 70% of female students wanted to continue a career in the subject, by their final year this figure had halved to 37% (compared to 59% of men wanting to continue into research).

Then there’s the bias that still pervades computer programming. Programming, even though it is no longer seen by the media as done by single nerds in their parents’ basement, is still in many cases a boys’ club with a tribal mentality. A sort of geek-chic-pride, where if you want to join us you need to fit in with us. In some cases this means that some programmers may respect their female colleagues doing management, marketing or other non-techie stuff, they secretly don’t believe that those colleagues could be as good as them when it comes to the hard, technical requirements of the business. And many women notice this even if it’s subtle.

And in many cases, being allowed to express your femininity and still be respected doesn’t fit into that culture. I’ve had similar experiences in previous careers in management consulting, when female colleagues often told me of the pressure to be less feminine if they wanted to be taken seriously. This included everything from how they dressed to how they talked, rather than the work they were producing, and was in an environment which had a much closer proportion of women compared to men in the workplace.

This reputation of workplace culture discourages girls from wanting develop the programming and development skills which would enable them to get a lucrative career in Tech.

What’s the impact?

At it’s most fundamental level, we need to ask the following question:

So what?

Seriously.

If the issue of lack of female engineers and coders is due to a lack of supply, then is there really a need to do something about it?

The answer is a resounding YES.

Not for political correctness.

Not because it’s the “right thing to do”.

Because of profitability.

Innovation is all about finding a new solution which adds value to a customer, something which many technology companies are actually horrendously bad at.

[I’ve gone into this in much more detail in a previous article here].

If half of the population is female, that means that approximately half of your potential customer base should be as well. And even if it isn’t today, as the current gender gap shrinks, the proportion of women looking for your products and services is likely to rise as well. Innovation is also thinking about the needs of your future customers.

More importantly, there is a growing body of evidence that a low amount of diversity in your teams will reduce their ability to come up with creative solutions to problems. The more mixed your team is, the better they will perform.

If your R&D labs, marketing departments or programming teams are full of men (mostly white), then they will often design things in a way which they themselves would find useful, rather than putting themselves in the perspective of someone else. This lead to companies developing products and features which may be complicated and futuristic, but which their customers don’t really care about.

As Abraham Maslow said in 1966, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

In fact, you should be aiming to continuously be mixing teams around over time, and the ideal ratio of existing team to new (and different) blood should be about 50:50.

So the reason to encourage more women (and other under-respresented groups) to join the parts of your business which develop new offerings, is that you will significantly improve the likelihood that those offerings add value to a broader range of customers.

How do you go about achieving this?

Unfortunately, there’s no magic wand we can wave to immediately fix this problem. But if you do want to help improve your innovativeness, here are a couple of quick steps you can take:

  1. Find out what your current staff makeup is: Especially by department and role. Like it or not, you might find out that the number of women and other minorities is lower in value-adding, innovation-focused roles like R&D, strategy and engineering.
  2. Accept this information as a fact, even if it’s uncomfortable: The numbers shouldn’t be lying to you. And since this is an internal exercise, then determine if there’s something that can be done about them in the future.
  3. Find out whether there is anything internally affecting the demand for women in those roles: In general, people like other people who are similar to themselves. This may lead to situations where people involved in recruitment are looking for people with a similar background and skills to those already in the company. If this continues, your company will end up with a large pool of similar ideas and a much reduced ability to innovate long-term.
  4. Determine what to do about it: This could range from mixing around already established teams, actively recruiting more women and minorities all the way up to setting internal targets and quotas for Leadership positions, something which has been shown to work in the EU.

Do you think that we need to be more proactive about encouraging women to participate in STEM careers? Let me know in the comments below