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Lack of Inclusion Challenges Women in STEM Careers

Recently, I had the privilege of speaking on a panel at the Silicon Slopes Women in Tech event. I was joined by my colleague, Julie Skaff, co-founder and head of operations at OODA Health, along with Kimmy Paluch, co-founder at Beta Boom, and Amy Dredge, Engineering Manager at Pluralsight. The panel was moderated by Sara Jones, co-founder and COO of the Women Tech Council.

We had a lively discussion, but our conversations often came back to an underlying theme: inclusion is a major challenge for women in STEM careers. We discussed the challenges and talked about the changes that can be made to improve this situation.

Recent studies validate this issue. According to a December 2016 research report by Utah Valley University, Utah women hold a lower percentage of STEM jobs than women nationally, and Utah ranked last in the U.S. in terms of the percent of women employed in STEM. Our personal stories showed the challenges first-hand.

Ms. Dredge shared that at her first job, she could go entire days without saying a word out loud, and usually ate lunch alone in her cubicle because the men on her team ate lunch together and did not include her. This experience almost drove her away from engineering. I experienced a similar lack of inclusion as early as college. I was an engineering major, where a high percentage of students were male, and much of our coursework was done in group projects. I was surprised to find that many of my male classmates did not seem to want a woman on their team.

We also discussed the lack of STEM role models for women. It’s difficult for younger women to picture themselves in a STEM career when they don’t see leaders in the field who look like them. We agreed that women need to see more role models throughout the course of their careers to help them envision what their careers could become. And we joked about the fact that the female version of Elon Musk would have been fired years ago because behavioral norms apply very differently to women — so when investors are looking for the “brilliant jerk” founder archetype like Musk or Steve Jobs, they will overlook a number of qualified founders, both male and female.

When the conversation shifted to what can be done to improve the situation, the group had several ideas.

  • Job descriptions – Make sure that job descriptions are written in a manner that shows that the company is open to and inclusive of many types of applicants. Does a job description for a “rock star” appeal to both women and men, or is it more appealing to young men only?
  • Recruiting – Ms. Skaff said you should not apply the “airport test” when evaluating applicants. This is when the hiring manager envisions themselves stuck in an airport with the person to see if they would be comfortable working with them every day. Ultimately, this approach leads to hiring people that are similar to yourself. We need to look at candidates based on their merit and be open to different backgrounds and points of view. We also need to source candidates outside of our networks and broaden the funnel of candidates.
  • Exit interviews – Ms.Paluch pointed out that many companies today are not using exit interviews properly. They need to ask more questions, and different questions, to find out why women are leaving positions at their organization. These interviews are an opportunity to identify trends and determine if there is a larger culture problem at the company.
  • Formalizing inclusion – Find ways to formalize inclusion in your company or department. Ms. Dredge said that her company set up a pair programming program where she sat side-by-side with a more experienced engineer who taught her, which helped her feel more included in addition to providing the training she needed. She encouraged companies to set up more formal programs such as this to ensure that women felt included in teams.
  • Sponsorship – Ms. Jones noted the difference between having a mentor, who gives you advice, versus a sponsor, who actually spends his or her political capital to advance your career. Both are important, but executive sponsorship is critical to advance women’s careers, and it’s often lacking. Company leaders should consider not just mentoring promising women, but actually sponsoring them.
  • No excuses – Some companies will say that they don’t have many women in STEM positions because there were not enough women in their applicant pipeline. Organizations need to more actively recruit women and make the job and their company a place where women feel welcome and want to work. Don’t blame the pipeline!

In all, improving inclusion is not about overcoming one major hurdle but implementing a collection of many small changes. Recruiting and hiring, gathering feedback, promoting, investing and mentoring all play a role in creating a better, more inclusive environment that can help attract, promote, and retain more women in STEM careers. Improving inclusion is not only the right thing to do, numerous studies have proven that diverse teams perform better — making this an important issue not only in Utah, but across the nation.

 

Sophie Pinkard is co-founder and head of product at OODA Health. She is based in Salt Lake City.

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