The future is in STEM – but only men benefit right now
The KIP Index is the first Middle East and North Africa (Mena) sector-based measure of women-inclusive policies and practices in local organisations produced by the Centre for Inclusive Business Leadership (CIBL) for Women at the Olayan School of Business in the American University of Beirut. It covers 11 Arab Mena countries, surveys over 1700 formal employers and over 520 interviews with women. This year's survey found that the STEM sector, which encompasses science, technology, engineering and mathematics, ranks lowest when it comes to the recruitment, retention and promotion (RRP) of women. Here, Dr Charlotte Karam, founding director at CIBL for Women, outlines the ways private and public sector organisations can attract and retain more women in the STEM sector.
The purpose of the KIP Index was to close the data deficit in the region and create an achievable roadmap for gender-inclusive employer policies. Based on the data collected and analysed, the alarming fact is that the majority of the jobs of the future, will be in STEM, but women are predominantly absent in this sector. So how can innovative organisations, startups and entrepreneurs draw more women into this sector?
The simple answer: create move inclusive workplaces.
The hard truth: it requires the careful crafting of practices and policies to ensure women are recruited without discrimination, retained within their respective organisations through proper career planning, mentorship and networking opportunities, and promoted through upward career trajectories, based on merit. It also addressed the growing disparity in the allocation of funding when it comes to female-owned ventures.
Let’s take a look at the facts first
The regional scores from the KIP Index show that STEM ranks the lowest among all sectors, and well below the Arab Mena average across the different dimensions.
The Retention dimension ranked the lowest in this sector (31.59 out of a score of 100), indicating a dire need for organisations to implement strategies that can help to retain women. This is alarming given the fact that most jobs of the future will involve a high level of information technology and other STEM related fields. In comparison, the highest ranking sector based on the retention dimension, is healthcare, which scores 42.77.
The STEM sector ranks well below average for Promotion (35.30 out of a score of 100). This figure explains why women are almost absent from leadership positions. Healthcare for example, which is the highest ranking sector in terms of Promotion, achieved a score of 47.55.
In terms of recruitment, the KIP Index findings show that the STEM sector also ranks the lowest (40.02 out of a score of 100). Once again, healthcare ranks highest in this dimension, at 45.00.
Based on this, HR managers would do well to continue to make leadership positions available to women in the years to come, and keep on providing developmental opportunities for women in order to increase the representation of women in leadership in STEM in the years to come.
Where do these problems arise from?
The Mena region suffers from a growing data deficit that few organisations are working to close. The KIP Index, CIBL for Women, worked over two years, along with 11 country partners, to generate data from the region, for the region. There is still a growing need to collect and analyse gender-disaggregated data across all dimensions of RRP. In this regard, business owners and entrepreneurs can work towards closing the data deficit, either within their organisations, or specialising in data collection and analysis.
Women’s voices are typically underrepresented across all levels of organisations, and specifically in leadership positions, as is the case on regional boards. Studies have shown however, that the more diverse boards are, the greater the benefits in terms of innovative idea generation and financial returns. In addition, companies that sell products or services targeting women are really missing out. To attract female customers that comprise 50 per cent of the region’s purchasing power, why aren’t women also involved in the discussion? As such, by conducting focus groups with potential applicants, former employees, and customers, these gaps can be better understood and ultimately, tackled.
Internal reporting mechanisms are integral for organisations to become more inclusive, but they are prevalently absent across the region. Companies must work to build internal capacity to recognise bias, discrimination, and workplace violence. This entails implementing structures to report discrimination and revise all corporate literature to remove gender-bias terminology. Given that many startups and scale ups are more agile in this regard, implementing these mechanisms should be easier to carry out.
Mentorship programmes can support highly qualified talent to rise to the top. Accordingly, mentoring programmes and networking opportunities need to be developed as part of corporate, startup and scale up agendas, to increase the retention and promotion of women in the workplace.
Where are the female entrepreneurs in STEM?
Workplace discrimination does not stop within organisations, rather it cascades into funding opportunities, when it comes to female-led businesses. Female entrepreneurs receive a marginal percentage of funding, when compared to their male counterparts. While we do not have this data (yet) for the Mena region, in the US for example, research by UBS shows that in 2018, less than 3 per cent of VC funding went to companies with a female CEO, and 86 per cent of all VC-funded businesses have no women in management positions.
What we can derive from this data, is that there is a growing disparity in funding, which may hinder the prospects of brilliant female entrepreneurs from becoming business owners, in the realm of STEM.
For entrepreneurs and startups, as well as larger organisations working in STEM, how can the sector become more inclusive?
When it comes to recruitment
HR managers need to collect data to understand why not enough women are applying to the STEM sector. With a growing number of female graduates in the field of STEM, why are they not applying to companies based on their university education?
In addition, partnering with universities and NGOs, other employers can help widen the pool of applicants for more female nationals to identify potential career opportunities in the field of STEM and barriers to enter can start to be removed.
It is also recommended to have more successful role models for women in STEM, who can inspire and encourage more women to apply.
Once the women join, how do we keep them on board?
When it comes to retention, data is everything and it is telling. HR managers should collect and analyse data about what may be pushing women out of this sector. Is it the unequal pay? Lack of work/life balance? Much-needed continuous education opportunities and mentorship?
For women with high tenure (i.e. those who have spent many years in a company), HR managers need to collect data to understand whether tenure is linked to quality of experience. Is there something that can be improved in the workplace that is being overlooked?
To ensure women leaders are present in the STEM sector in the future, they need to be promoted
Promotion should be based on merit and hard work. In this regard, HR managers need to better support women occupying top positions in this sector through better policies and benefits.
HR managers should recognise the role of women in top decision-making positions in inspiring and supporting other women in this sector. HR managers should also be empowered to head-hunt and target qualified women to lead top positions in this sector.
Of course, training and development opportunities should be directly linked to opportunities and requirements for promotion and upward mobility prospects
For the STEM sector to be inclusive, we need a Roadmap
Multinational organizations and startups, female entrepreneurs and HR managers in the STEM sector, as well as educational institutions, can lead the roadmap for change. However, the conversation to make STEM more inclusive, needs to start early on. If young females and women in the workplace are not part of this discussion, then the sector will remain male dominated, and future opportunities for women in this sector, will be even scarcer.
We are seeing some changes in academia, with the integration of STEM programmes in schools across Mena, but this is not enough. Decision-makers must make a deliberative choice to adopt and implement gender-inclusive recruitment, retention, and promotion policies. Work packages must address issues of work-life balance and have clear criteria for upward mobility. More women in top positions in the STEM sector will inspire and support other women to join organisations in STEM. More effort must be exerted to develop the required skill sets in a tech driven world. Employers can also partner with universities to attract young women while they are choosing their career paths. At this stage, women would benefit from mentoring sessions, to broaden their career prospects and hone their STEM-related skills. The crucial point however, where most change can be made starting from today, are in formal employer organisations across the region. Only with more inclusive recruitment, retention and promotion strategies that target women, will we see more women in the STEM sector.