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Pay Gap or Promotion Gap?: Obstacles to Progression for Women in STEM

Posted on: February 7, 2022

When it comes to achieving gender equality in STEM, the gender pay gap is only one part of the problem

When it comes to the gender pay gap, the sectors which fall under the umbrella of ‘STEM’ – that is, science, technology, engineering and mathematics – are far from the worst offenders. But the figures often employed to champion the technical professions as havens of gender equality can obscure the subtler ways in which women can find themselves at a disadvantage.

The most obvious of those is the lack of women working in STEM fields. While a woman developing a new medicine, say, will likely earn just as much as the male colleagues with whom she shares her laboratory, she will also  find herself ‘outnumbered’. A recent survey by the Royal Academy of Engineering, which analysed 42,000 employees’ data across more than 30 companies in the U.K., found that women comprised only 12% of the engineering workforce. 

‘57% of female engineers drop off the register of professional engineers under the age of 45'

So why are so few women entering STEM? This is the question employers need to address, but the issue starts as early as lower school. Perhaps more than in any other field, the trajectory of a career in STEM is akin to climbing a ladder. An aptitude for the subject is essential from an early age, but must be sustained through school exams, undergraduate and, in many cases, postgraduate study if you want to secure a career in a relevant field. But if you drop off the ladder at any point, whether it’s the fifth rung or the fiftieth, re-entry into the field becomes significantly more difficult. A study from 2018, which interviewed 6,000 girls and women aged 10 to 30 across the United States, noted that while 75% of girls expressed an interest in STEM subjects at age 10, this number plummeted to a mere 11% by age 15. 

The decline in retention doesn’t stop once you’ve entered the workplace, however. The RAE report also mentions that ‘57% of female engineers drop off the register of professional engineers under the age of 45, compared to just 17% of male engineers’. Part of the problem, no doubt, owes to the very culture of STEM as it currently stands – or at least how it is perceived. There is an abiding stereotype of engineers and technicians as overwhelmingly male, blithely anti-social and generally middle-aged (at least when compared with many other professions), which can disincentivise girls during their education. According to Fatma Abdel-Raouf and Patricia Buhler, co-authors of The Gender Pay Gap: Understanding the Numbers, these dire retention rates ‘can be attributed to a misperception of what those careers might look like’. One possible solution they offer is for ‘companies [to] use job shadow opportunities and showcase an inclusive environment with highly visible female leaders.’ As an example of how this might come about, they cite a ‘city-wide job shadow day in Chicago [which] included 100 girls with job shadow opportunities at 20 local tech companies – creating their own perceptions of what a career at these companies could look like.’

'Part of the problem, no doubt, owes to the very culture of STEM as it currently stands – or at least how it is perceived'

But many women who enter STEM find their perceptions are not so misconceived after alll. According to a 2018 report by Pew Research Center, 50% of women surveyed working in STEM claim to have faced discrimination on the basis of their sex, citing isolation, condescension and in some cases harassment. Women in such situations are more likely to want to switch careers completely, further depleting the already diminutive pool of women in STEM. While the issue stems from a lack of women rather than an overabundance of men, part of it owes to the fact that the status of men in STEM fields is one of ‘critical mass’, to borrow a term from physics – that is to say that men make up such a high percentage of the workforce that women are often deterred from pursuing a career in STEM – and thereby bolstering their own numbers – at a time when other professions are seeing female applicants swell.  As a result, the imbalance is self-sustaining. A similar catch-22 is clogging the academic pipeline. If more girls are to enter STEM early on in their education, they will need women in top positions to inspire them. But as it stands, reaching those top positions is unfeasible for so many women precisely because so few are entering STEM in the first place.

Given these conditions, it would seem that the pipeline itself needs an overhaul, with girls receiving greater encouragement as early as pre-school. Such measures might include combatting stereotypes in the classroom, and exposing girls to example of succesful women from an early age. But measures like these, which follows a ground-up approach, will require time and patience to come to fruition. Fortunately, there are steps employers can take now to make senior positions more accessible to women. The RAE report, which found that women make up only 8% of employees in the upper pay quartile, suggests that a major factor behind this is the increased proclivity for ‘flexible working’ amongst female workers. Taking time off for maternity leave, and returning on a reduced hours basis, will often bar the path towards senior positions, few of which can be operated on a part-time basis. In the sample cited, 17% of the female engineers worked part-time compared to just 2% of the male engineers.

'If more girls are to enter STEM early on in their education, they will need women in top positions to inspire them.'

Rather than implementing policies that would bring the number of female engineers working part-time closer to 2%, a way forwards might be to increase the number of male engineers working part-time to a proportion closer to 17%. One of the WISE campaign’s ‘Ten Steps’ – ‘A Cultural transformational framework to drive diversity and inclusion in your organisation’ – is to ‘make flexible working a reality for all’. Measures such as extending paternity leave, and allowing for flexible working to be incorporated into contracts, will not only help to put men and women on equal footing in STEM, but make STEM careers more attractive for everyone.

The route to gender equality in STEM is not to deter men from taking up positions in the field, but to promote an environment of inclusion and equal opportunity for everyone. This is more important now than ever, since the increasing rate of technological change means that more engineers are needed than the current supply in many countries can account for. But having a larger pool of applicants is not enough, and nor is the lure of a high salary. If STEM companies want to stay innovative, relevant and succesful in the future, they will do well to make themselves viable and attractive for 100%, and not just 50%, of the population, and to embrace the advantages that come with having a diverse workforce.