Why effective learning can bridge the gender gap in STEM industries

These women leaders say effective learning strategies can boost female representation in STEM

This week is International Women’s Week, including International Women’s Day. With businesses celebrating their female workforce, is this leading to real action on female empowerment?

The question we should be asking firms is what are they really doing to help all types of women succeed? Some female leaders in the still male-dominated tech sector think that effective learning strategies could help.

DiversityQ hears from senior female leadership at two US-based tech firms, educational technology firm, Degreed and business software products company Progress, to find out if effective learning and upskilling strategies are really what’s needed.

Since Degreed implemented its Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DIB) programme in 2020, the number of women in leadership roles has grown from 25% to 42%. Among new hires, gender balance has risen to 53.5%. Yet, female representation in the STEM world generally isn’t as impressive.

According to data from a World Economic Forum report, gender gaps are more likely to be found in sectors that require disruptive technical skills, such as in data and AI (only 32% of workers are women), engineering (20% female) and Cloud Computing, a sector where women make up just 14% of the workforce.

Below, Degreed’s female leaders explain why they believe an effective learning strategy can help bridge the sector’s gender disparities.

Janice Burns, Chief People Officer at Degreed, said: “Education and diversity can transform companies and societies. I believe skills to be a great equaliser in helping to provide career opportunities from a diversity and inclusion perspective.

“Skills are objective things you can learn, measure, improve and transfer. To promote diverse and inclusive organisations, RedThread research has uncovered the key skills that drive DIB cultures at every employee level. Individuals will benefit from upskilling in authenticity, courage, pattern recognition, and data literacy, managers in curiosity, influence, negotiation, and grit. Leadership skills include mental flexibility, rapport-building, and assertiveness.

“Taking a skill-based approach across your organisation will also reduce bias in your upskilling, promoting, hiring, and other talent decisions. If you have the right skills for your role, where you’re from, your gender, race — it all doesn’t matter. Fostering a culture like this is one that provides opportunities for growth, empowerment and career elasticity, naturally opening up doors for more inclusion of all individuals. Particularly women, as research finds that when leadership takes a more data-driven approach to diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) efforts, it results in downstream efforts that especially impact women.”

Susie Lee, SVP of Global Business Transformation & DEIB Executive Officer at Degreed, said: “Successfully driving a culture of DEIB and offering strong, unbiased career opportunities across an organisation, starts with understanding the skills needed.

“Actionable skills data gives everyone a tangible and unbiased way to build the foundations for an inclusive organisation — one skill at a time. What’s really exciting is the actionability not just for HR but across the entire business and for all job levels because it’s only through making DEIB part of holistic business operations that true systemic change will occur across HR teams and the broader business community.

“Women, in particular, often feel microaggressions and other items which undermine DEIB happen in the details of work-life. It’s vital to understand how day-to-day interactions can add to an overall employee experience that leaves them feeling alienated and ‘other’. 

“To encourage more diverse candidates into leadership roles, you need a multifaceted approach that builds talent from the ground up, that addresses systemic inequality at all levels and departments, and that inspires people to do their best work and reach their full potential. Give people the autonomy to choose their best work environment. Make talent opportunities visible and accessible to everyone, not just those with the right connections. Set up mentoring programmes to inspire and nurture candidates – and vice versa, to give mentors the opportunity to give back and grow their leadership skills. Listen to your people, especially those in the minority, and set up ways to hear and learn from their lived experiences.” 

Annee Bayeux, Chief Learning Strategist & Executive Sponsor of GenderBRG at Degreed, said: “One important factor of supporting a gender-balanced culture is finding the right technology that can not only be inclusive but will increase participation and engagement from those who, for any reason, are “unseen.”

Technology, and more specifically AI/ML, can either drive and propagate bias or, when well designed for democratisation, can help to remove some of the biases in our environment. For example, recruitment and career management systems are being designed to help level the playing field by suppressing information that could lead to unintended bias.

“At Degreed, we design our learning system to focus on individual skills and progression, which elevates the voices of experts across an organisation, not just the voices of the ‘usual suspects’ who know how to market themselves.” 

Dr Shirley Knowles, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at Progress, says firms must avoid “empty work” by investing in women’s career development.

“It’s not enough to simply hire more women to increase your diversity data; that’s empty work that the public and your employees can see right through. You need to invest in women. Invest in them with money: The gender pay gap is a real thing that should be talked about more. The Pew Research Center recently reported that women in the US earned 84% of what men earned. We need to provide women equal pay for their work.

“In addition, setting up scholarships and donating to organisations like Girls Who Code and Women Who Code make it clear that you support women in their educational and career pursuits. Invest in them with professional development opportunities: Mentorship, career plans and advocating for their promotions are clear actions you can take to provide the same growth plans that men are accustomed to.

“Invest in them by listening to them: Acknowledge their work. Listen to them in meetings, give them credit where it’s due, and stop interrupting them. By creating a work environment where they confidently speak up in meetings with no interruptions, you are leaving room for more leaders to grow at your company. And creating this space is especially important for women of colour. According to recent data from the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), women hold only 25% of computing roles. Of that 25%, Asian women make up 5%, and Black and Hispanic women accounted for just 3% and 1%, respectively.

“International Women’s Day is a day that reminds us how crucial it is to recognise women’s achievements and contributions so we can create a world where all women are respected, supported and elevated.”

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