Year after year, women are leaving STEM fields at pivotal moments in their careers. Faced with bureaucracy stalling professional development, dissatisfying cultures and work-life imbalance, more than half of the women who enter STEM leave within a decade.
As a result, women remain outnumbered three to one in the STEM workforce overall and drastically under-represented in the C-suite, despite having ambition on par with their male colleagues. Now is the time to right the course, as some reports say more women than ever before are choosing STEM education and careers.
How can employers provide women with the right options and the necessary safeguards to not only stay in, but also re-enter the workforce, keeping them on track to reach the C-Suite, if they so choose?
The strategy needs to shift from reactive to a comprehensive approach that proactively addresses the reason women are leaving STEM jobs.
Here are 4 places to start:
- Shift your culture – open the dialogue, broaden the ownership
Opening the lines of communication in STEM isn’t just something women want – men want it too. This U.S. News & World Report article states that men and women in STEM are dissatisfied with the same things when it comes to organizational culture. But women react differently when it doesn’t change – they leave. Whether its workplace diversity, career advancement, pay equity, engagement or work-life integration, open the conversation, and give both women and men the opportunity to actively participate in changing the culture. In becoming active contributors, and in turn, stakeholders, women could be more inclined to stay and grow with the organization.
- Cast your talent net wider – and back to neglected pools
What about the millions of women – many senior level – who have chosen to take a break to help raise their families, and are now ready to re-enter the workforce? Enter the “returnship” – a concept that is thriving across many industries, including STEM. Returnships help women get back up to speed in their field, with the potential to be formally hired. In 2016, 7 major STEM companies launched formal re-entry programs for women and saw high demand. The recent IFC-sponsored SheWorks Report offers great suggestions, including modeling returnships after existing internship programs, or as short-term freelance or gig contracts. Reach out to past female employees, tap into current employee networks or industry associations to source candidates. Or, consider utilizing a staffing company.
- Support work-life integration – focus on flexibility and benefits
42% of both men and women say the challenge of balancing family and work commitments prevents them from wanting to be a top executive and more than half of working mothers say that the option to have flexible hours is a major factor when taking a job. STEM is not alone in the work-life challenge all employers face – giving employees what they need – while meeting budgets and productivity goals. The 2014 book, “Equitable Solutions for Retaining a Robust STEM Workforce: Beyond Best Practices” reinforces that work-life integration is a challenge in STEM fields, where lack of flexibility and long work hours are among the factors significantly impacting retention. While work-life conflict crosses gender lines, women are still disproportionately impacted when it comes to family care issues – in all fields, including STEM. When companies implement programs and policies that enable employees to create flexible work arrangements and receive family care benefits, like backup child care, it’s a real differentiator in terms of attracting, retaining and engaging female talent – and keeping their career trajectories on track to reach leadership positions.
- Balance mentoring and sponsoring
Women in STEM need more mentors – both women and men, but they also need sponsors – colleagues who speak up for them. Some studies argue that women aren’t getting ahead in the numbers they should be, even with adequate mentoring. Could this be because there isn’t enough sponsoring alongside mentorship? This Forbes article argues women do not have enough colleagues speaking up for them in the room – bringing up their name, inviting them to the meeting, advocating for their promotion. The value of mentoring to women is proven – be it in pairs or groups, inside your organization or at a broader industry level. But don’t overlook the power of sponsorship in the equation.
One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to propelling women to the C-Suite. While industry, national and global conversations gain momentum and policies are necessarily reshaped, the most important discussions are happening with the individual women at your organizations. So, grab a coffee and get started.