By previous standards it would seem to be a contradiction to have the current Miss Universe 2020 telling us how we can attract more women to roles in STEM. But things have changed and we have Maria Thattil – the current Miss Universe 2020 – who has double degrees in HR and Psychology and used to be a Human Resources Manager specialising in STEM roles for women, giving us her views on how we can encourage more women into STEM.
In an article Thattil has written, she talks about the need for a fundamental shift in workplace culture if more women are to be attracted to STEM roles and retained. As well, she highlights anecdotes where women confided to her they were too scared to talk about their kids for fears that they would not be promoted by (often male) bosses in STEM roles.
Here at Women Love Tech, we’re often talking about gender diversity and how to encourage women into roles in STEM, so we’re happy to publish Maria Thattil’s article on the subject with all the insight she has to offer:
In order to attract more women to STEM roles, there needs to be a shift in workplace culture
By Maria Thattil
It’s no secret that Australia is facing a dilemma when it comes to women in STEM fields. According to the Office of the Chief Scientist, only 16 per cent of the 2.3 million STEM-qualified Australians are female, with engineering showing the largest gender disparity.
Whilst there have been gains for women in STEM fields, and we know that STEM jobs will be a major pathway for Generation Z and those beyond, currently we are still underrepresented as managers, CEOs and face higher unemployment prospects and lower incomes than men.
How then do we build a pipeline of women to take up space in STEM? In order to attract, retain and develop more women in not only STEM careers, but leadership, there needs to be a fundamental shift in culture.
I spent years working in human resources in talent acquisition helping women find roles in male-dominated industries including construction and engineering. The fact is, the practicalities for many women working in these fields can be limiting. In particular, I’ve had women tell me that they were scoffed at for wanting to pursue technical careers and aspire to leadership when they were already mothers, or were game enough to divulge hopes of one day having children.
Pervasive and persistent experiences with a lack of diversity, harassment and discrimination due to biased beliefs of women being less competent, qualified or accepted in male dominated fields has created a crisis of confidence for many. It’s one reason in why young women may be less likely to choose a career in STEM.
This lack of confidence is perpetuated by the fact that many workplace cultures across a variety of industries tend to be centred around masculine ideals of success. It can be easier for men to assimilate but women feel they have to work hard to navigate masculine workplace norms.
I have worked in three private sector organisations that projected the “ideal employee” as someone who would put in “face time” at the desk, work long hours, be competitive and extroverted. It was also strongly implied that favouritism would be meted out to employees without dependents and a lack of extra-curricular pursuits, as presumably they would be free to invest more into their job.
One successful, intelligent female manager in her late thirties disclosed to me that she refused to discuss her child in professional contexts because she feared superiors would perceive her role as a mother as “compromising her ability to do her job as a leader”.
I have had former colleagues in these industries blatantly express to me the perception that the reason women face barriers to career progression and leadership is because they “typically go on to have kids and when they do, they won’t want to work, will take lots of time off and be a cost to the business”. This perception isn’t unique, it is prevalent and strong in conviction, however it fails to account for women who don’t choose to become mothers but face the same barriers to promotion, progression and leadership.
So, how do we fill the gaping shortage of women in STEM positions? We hold the beliefs underpinning our thoughts, words, actions and institutions up to the light and overhaul. Implementing pro-diversity strategies, initiatives, practices and policies is essential. From hosting unconscious bias training to a targeted strategy for diverse and inclusive talent acquisition and management – it all matters. These strategies do filter through. In a previous workplace of mine, it fed into the process of crafting our roles and advertising them.
Many female tech applicants I have recruited expressed surprise at reading some of my job ads which used gender-neutral language, discussed clear progression opportunities and pointed out organisations’ diversity goals.
Where possible, I worked with managers to ensure that roles were flexible as opposed to the usual spiel “demanding long hours” in exchange for success. Women with children, wanting to have children or with personal or business endeavours were enthused to see there was flexibility for personal commitments.
From the language we use to encouraging STEM potential through education, we need to overcome deeply entrenched cultural attitudes about gender that create barriers for women in the first place.
However, the kind of institutional and systemic overhaul required is impossible without cleaning the sticky floors of the workplace culture that makes it so hard for women to take up their rightful space in the first place. Women intrinsically belong in STEM, it’s time organisations start acting like it.
Maria Thattil is the creator of Mind With Me – a series on Instagram which inspires women, men and young people to be confident and live their best lives. She is a writer, speaker and content creator with a background in human resources and psychology, and is the current Miss Universe Australia 2020.