Mending the STEM Gap

Whenever a manager at business software giant SAP is considering a group of candidates for a position, at least one of them has to be a woman or minority.

And if that person isn’t hired for the job, the manager making the hiring decision has to defend the choice.

“We want them to hire the person for the job,” said Jenny Dearborn, SAP’s chief learning officer. “But they can’t just say, ‘I liked this guy more.’ They have to explain why they made that decision.”

The practice is part of SAP’s broader strategy to increase the number of women recruited into science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, roles. The company’s goal is to have 25 percent of its leadership team represented by women by 2017.

STEM gap test tube

In particular, the defense process represents an effort to help the company uncover unconscious bias — a human trait many human resources experts say supports the gender imbalance in STEM jobs. A 2013 U.S. Census Bureau report showed that men are hired at twice the rate of women for STEM roles, and a Global STEM Alliance report released in late January 2015 found that women still represent less than 30 percent of the world’s science researchers.

Despite these figures, some companies have taken strides to fix the issue by using talent strategies that extend from recruitment to work-life balance.

Better Leaders, More Ideas

The male-dominated culture around STEM roles not only hurts the women who go out for these jobs, but also negatively affects organizational creativity, innovation and diversity, said Donna Milgram, executive director of the Institute for Women in Trades, Technology and Science in Alameda, California.

“Women bring a different perspective to the job,” Milgram said, “and they value different things.” If companies want women as customers, they should be eager to have that female perspective on the teams developing their products, Milgram added.

Women also make better corporate leaders, suggests a 2013 study published in the International Journal of Business Governance and Ethics. According to the study, women are more likely to make fair decisions when competing interests are at stake. The study also cited research showing companies with at least one female director were 20 percent less likely to file bankruptcy while those with a higher representation of females on their boards of directors performed better financially.

Still, companies continue to struggle to attract and retain women in STEM roles. Even if companies are actively looking for more women to hire, experts say many will be hard-pressed to close the deal unless they present an appealing culture that is supportive of women.

Youth Rules

Some companies start actively recruiting women long before they are ready to start their first job search. Ford Motor Co., for instance, has programs that engage girls before they are teenagers. The company also supports FIRST Robotics competitions for middle school girls, offers STEM scholarships and invites high school students to its facilities to meet engineers and participate in educational workshops.

“It is all about meeting our talent needs for the future,” said Laura Kurtz, manager of recruiting at Ford’s Dearborn, Michigan, headquarters. “If we introduce women to engineering at a young age, we can show them what an exciting career it can be. They may not be getting that impression in the classroom.”

Once on campus, Ford experts start networking with female STEM students in their freshman year by offering summer internship programs, giving guest lectures and providing students with mentors at Ford who can offer them guidance during their studies. They then stay connected with the students they meet via Facebook to let them know when events are happening nearby or when they will be on campus.

“It’s about building relationships and making sure they have someone at Ford who they can relate to,” Kurtz said.

Those early interventions help build brand recognition and loyalty among these students, which often translates to new hires. That’s how it worked for Angela Harris, who first engaged with Ford as a high schooljunior in 1998 when she attended a series of Ford science and technology workshops.

From there, Harris landed a summer internship doing research at the Ford innovation lab. Harris’ program mentor, who stayed connected with her throughout her college career, encouraged her to pursue a chemical engineering degree. When Harris graduated in 2003, Ford was her top choice of employers. She was hired full time and has been with the company ever since.

“I have loyalty to Ford,” Harris said. “It sounds cheesy, but I grew up with this company.”

Beyond Degree

Even with great long-term, women-focused recruiting strategies, it can still be tough to find enough women with STEM degrees to fill these roles. Research shows women are less likely to pursue STEM degrees, with graduation rates falling every year. A new report from the National Student Clearinghouse shows the share of STEM computer science degrees going to women has steadily decreased in the past decade, from 23 percent in 2004 to just 18 percent in 2014.

That’s not stopping IT consulting firm ThoughtWorks Inc. from finding young women to fill its ongoing need for developers. Half of all college graduates hired by the Chicago-based firm for its U.S. offices are women, and most of them take on engineering and developer roles.

The company does it by looking beyond the computer science department, said Joanna Parke, managing director for ThoughtWorks North America, which currently has 600 U.S. employees and 3,000 globally. Currently, 40 percent of its developers came from nontech backgrounds, including music, history, economics and accounting.

As long as a candidate shows an interest in technology, ThoughtWorks will consider them for a job. “Our founders believe it is more important to find people with intellectual curiosity than computer science degrees,” Parke said.

To fill in their knowledge gaps, the company says it starts supporting new recruits before they come to work. While still on campus, Parke’s team provides them with training materials and guidance on how to acquire basic coding skills. Then all new hires spend their first six weeks completing an intensive training program at the company’s ThoughtWorks University in India. 

Once on the job, they receive continued training and support for two years through mentors, coaching and structured learning events that occur on-site twice a month. This helps them get up to speed and find their place in the company.

ThoughtWorks is expected to welcome 60 college graduates in 2015. As of February, the company already had 42 accepted offers; 67 percent were women.

Keep Them Around

Although implementing female-focused recruiting and development strategies is helping companies do a better job of attracting young women into hard-to-fill STEM roles, experts say the support shouldn’t end there.

For women to stay in these companies long-term, they need a corporate structure that supports them as they mature in their careers — especially during the crucial years when they start building families. Experts say offering a great maternity leave program is a good first step, but on its own is no guarantee that women will feel comfortable returning to the workplace.

Indeed, fully 60 percent of women in STEM roles who take maternity leave say they experience multiple barriers returning to work, according to a 2014 study by Prospect, a U.K.-based union for engineering professionals. Cost of child care, lack of job flexibility, poor management support and unrealistic hours top the list of challenges that keep them from the workplace, the study showed.

This can be a tricky problem to solve. It requires companies to make significant changes to workplace culture. But it’s worth it for companies that don’t want their best people walking out the door.

To avoid the female brain drain, companies need to stop looking at employees in terms of what they offer today and start looking at them as long-term assets that will bring value for decades.

Taking this long view has helped companies like engineering and design firm Burns & McDonnell embrace a more holistic approach to work-life balance. The Kansas City, Missouri-based company offers its workers flextime options, including 80 percent schedules and the option to work two to three days week as a project expert, said Melissa Wood, the firm’s senior vice president and chief administration officer. 

“Most of the time, it’s moms who want to reduce their hours without stepping away from the workplace all together,” Wood said. “We want to give them that flexibility because it means they are going to stay with us.”

The company is also in the middle of building an on-site Bright Horizons child care center in its headquarters to further support working parents. “Child care is difficult to find in Kansas City, so it was the right decision to support our people,” Wood said.

It’s also a smart move from a retention standpoint. According to a recent Bright Horizons survey of working parents, 91 percent of both genders said employer-sponsored dependent care would make them more likely to continue to work for their organization, and 72 percent said it was important in their decision to return to work after the birth or adoption of a child.

While not all companies are big enough to afford on-site day care centers, experts say implementing flextime policies can go a long way toward making them feel like they can do their job without giving up the rest of their life.

This balance is not always easy to achieve. Companies like ThoughtWorks struggle to help employees achieve that balance because most of its projects require consultants to travel to the client site for days at a time. To prevent attrition among skilled and experienced workers, Parke said the company is experimenting with more work-at-home options, adjusted travel schedules and greater use of tools like Skype to reduce the days consultants need to be at the client site.

“We try to be flexible whenever possible so we can support the needs of our clients and our employees,” Parke said.

Leadership Support

Despite these obstacles, implementing strategies to attract and retain women throughout their careers is a smart business move that can help companies get and keep the best talent, drive diversity into the workplace and spur innovation.

But none of it will work unless the senior leadership team actively and vocally supports these strategies.

Like other companies, SAP offers flextime, part-time, job-sharing and work-at-home options. Its working moms also regularly take six to 12 months maternity leave. This culture of flexibility comes from the company’s German roots, and is reinforced by CEO Bill McDermott, Dearborn said. “His philosophy is that as long as people do their work and continue to drive results, they don’t need to be in the office,” Dearborn said.

Indeed, setting hiring goals, offering flextime or claiming to have an inclusive culture is only valuable if the offering is genuine and people are held accountable for supporting such goals.

For a company to continue to be technologically innovative and successful, building a culture that embraces women isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s a smart business decision.

 “Women bring diversity, new ideas and new ways to connect with customers,” Dearborn said. “All of that helps us to be more innovative.”