What HR Pros Can Do About the Lack of Women in STEM

Thanks to the pace of innovation, STEM skills—science, technology, engineering, and math—are in increasingly high demand. It’s not a news flash that there’s a lack of diversity (and women) in STEM jobs, and this presents an opportunity for HR pros. Make sure you understand the challenges for women in STEM careers and how your company is focusing on STEM opportunities; this can be key in ultimately attracting top talent.

Consider this —there are two STEM job vacancies for every qualified-but-unemployed person, and staffing agency Adecco forecasts that “U.S. colleges are only graduating enough computer science engineers to fill 30 percent of STEM jobs by 2020.”

Compounding this is the fact that as a society, we’re inadvertently pushing half the workforce away from these jobs. A majority of women don’t feel welcomed by the tech industry. Is it a pipeline and recruitment issue? Or does it stem from culture and retention? It’s likely a combination of both. Staying on top of these issues should be top-of-mind for any company in need of tech employees, the most forward-thinking of which are likely to attract and retain the top talent. Let’s look closer.

The Pipeline Problem

While women outpace men in earning college degrees, they represent just 24 percent of the overall STEM workforce. At the undergraduate level, women are less likely to earn a degree in fields like computer science than they were even 10 years ago; a report from the U.S. Department of Commerce found that overall employment for women in fields like computer science, math, and engineering actually went down between 2000 and 2009.

Heather Huhman, a Gen Y career expert, says the core issues stem from gender perceptions in social and cultural norms.

“The problem starts as early as grade school…there exists an unconscious bias that science and math are typically ‘male’ fields while humanities and arts are primarily ‘female’ fields, and these stereotypes further inhibit girls’ likelihood of cultivating an interest in math and science. ”

She says an inadvertent bias by teachers and parents can torpedo an aspiring girl’s interest, even opportunity. “Teachers fail to see girls’ raised hands, and limit their interactions with girls to social, non-academic topics. Boys may be expected to lead the pack in these areas and when a girl shows a proficiency in STEM subjects it can be seen as trivial and fleeting,” she explained.

Cultural Barriers

The hurdles don’t end for women who establish themselves in STEM fields, either. Joan C. Williams, Distinguished Professor of Law at UC Hastings College of the Law, co-authored a study earlier this year that found women are often in the position where they must consistently prove their competency and dedication—even to other women.

Writing for HBR, she reported that many women in STEM careers say they walk a tightrope between being seen as competent without straying too far from traditional expectations for women. One biologist reported that while she used to speak her mind directly, she now frames her requests as, “I can’t do this without your help,” in order to maintain better working relationships. Worried about being seen as too ambitious, an astrophysicist said she goes as far as hiding prizes and media coverage.

“It’s so tempting to attribute the paucity of women in STEM to pipeline problems or personal choices. But it’s time to listen to women scientists: they think the issue is gender bias, and an increasing amount of research supports that view,” Williams said.

What Does This Mean for Companies in Need of STEM Talent?

While all of the inherent biases and challenges that girls and women face in STEM fields won’t be eliminated overnight, there are strategies that organizations can take to support education in the community, create a more inclusive culture, and foster a positive brand image that will impact recruitment. Let’s explore some ideas:

Start early. Reach out to girls before they start thinking about a career. Talking with girls and exposing them to the opportunities that STEM careers present at a young age goes a long way. And it’s not just a nice thing to do: It creates a pipeline of future engineers, and signals to women who are already working in the field that your company prioritizes gender parity and values diversity. You’ll find that if you’re already invested in the community, recruiting becomes a lot easier.

  • Support grants and scholarships that lead to internships. Put your money where your mouth is – and then actively participate. Create specific programs that encourage girls and women to learn and grow in computer science and engineering; it can help you identify new talent and ensure the cultural fit of prospective employees.
  • Create mentorship opportunities. Part of creating your own pipeline means offering opportunities for young women to develop relationships within your company as their career progresses. It is critical for long-term retention to provide support and a framework for women to succeed.

Hopefully, the foregoing has gotten you to thinking about STEM recruiting and how your HR team can actively work to promote STEM initiatives, build relationships with young people (a/k/a ‘future talent’), and create opportunities to mentor both young people and internal teams in STEM. Mentorship creates relationships that lead to good corporate culture and happy, motivated employees that stay around. What does your company, and your HR team do as it relates to STEM recruiting? Do you have tips to add to the ones I’ve suggested? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

If you’d like more information on STEM, especially as it relates to girls and women, you might check out some of the resources listed below:

National Girls Collaborative Project

The National Girls Collaborative Project (NGCP) encourages young girls to begin a career in a STEM field. NGCP offers several publications about the lack of female presence in these career fields, and acts as a collaborative group that includes many organizations across the country.

Association for Career and Technical Education

The Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE) is the largest association of its kind, addressing pedagogical issues in technology education. The association provides resources for teachers and is highly involved in advocacy work; they’ve lobbied policymakers to improve technical education in schools.


The National Center for Women & Information Technology works to correct gender imbalance in technology and computing because it positively correlates with a larger workforce, better innovation, and increased business performance.

Association for Women in Science

The Association for Women in Science, or AWIS, is a professional organization for women who work in STEM. They offer many resources for women working in these fields such as continuing education, literature, and workshops in addition to coaching and mentoring services.

There are other organizations for women in STEM careers and many actively encourage women to join these fields. The balance won’t be righted overnight, but through stronger education and more inclusive workplace culture, the gap can be closed.

Image: BigStock