Mind the gap: gender diversity as a key competitive advantage
In 2022, three-in-four STEM-focused companies said that they were experiencing skills shortages and difficulties hiring, all of which hinders growth, innovation and competitive edge. With women making up only 24 per cent of STEM professionals in the UK, a major part of the answer to this challenge lies in having a comprehensive gender diversity strategy, owned, and visibly led, by business leaders.
PA Consulting’s ‘Closing the STEM Gap’ report surveyed attitudes to gender diversity in STEM and it is clear that leaders in the sector recognise its importance. Over half (56 per cent) of those surveyed said gender diversity is a top priority for their organisation and a fifth said it was more important than other factors like mental health issues, sustainability, and company culture. They also reported progress, with 78 per cent saying they had seen a strong improvement in encouraging and supporting gender diversity and inclusion in STEM roles over the course of their careers.
However, the research revealed some ongoing issues, with women less satisfied than men with gender diversity and the trans and non-binary communities feeling they are an afterthought in some companies. Structural barriers to progress, a lack of employee-led networks and senior mentorship and sponsorship were all seen as problems that still needed tackling and which will need commitment from senior leaders to change.
The starting point is recruitment. New hires are increasingly concerned by prospective employer’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I) commitments. That makes it important for firms to be transparent, and acknowledge where they are improving and making progress. One example of an approach that works is HSBC’s publication of its gender and ethnicity data dashboard across their global workforce.
Another practical step in attracting women to STEM roles is promoting flexible working, with 35 per cent of the respondents surveyed by PA saying this was the most effective action companies could take. This does mean going beyond simply offering flexible working and providing options such as job sharing, compressed hours or four-day weeks, term-time working, and self-rostering. It is also important to recognise that these approaches are more effective when leaders role model them.
Demonstrating a tangible commitment to DE&I is critical, especially for LGBTQIA+ colleagues. Huge progress in equality and representation has been made across many societies in the last 20 years, yet the fact remains that feeling comfortable at work is still a challenge for many. Non-binary and trans people look for employers who are genuinely inclusive and understanding of their needs.
It is particularly important to get the recruitment process right as this is the point when women, trans and non-binary people tend to drop out if their experience is not positive. Our research shows that one of the best things leaders can do is to remove bias at interview. In practical terms, this means that job specs/adverts should be gender decoded and use soft language to attract a wider and more diverse candidate slate. Where the job adverts are also posted can also make a difference, with many respondents saying that when companies made use of ‘women in STEM career websites/marketplaces’ they were more likely to be seen as unbiased. PA’s research also showed that offering women and LGBTQIA+-centric benefits and outlining them in interviews was very effective.
Once a company has started to recruit diverse new talent, retention is key. There is a high turnover rate of women in STEM professions, with more than half leaving the industry before they’re 35. Leadership commitment to inclusive behaviour and culture was found to be the most effective in retaining talent by 34 per cent of respondents. In practical terms, this means giving opportunities to women, recommending them to others and amplifying their voices in meetings. Other effective actions are to encourage a healthy work-life balance to establish staff networks.
Recruitment is often focused on reaching candidates who already fit a specific role specification but that can mean companies are all fishing in the same pool. Retraining can enable organisations to bring in different people with the right aptitude and even some of the right skills, and then be supported with on-the-job learning. Equally, being open to cross-skilling and career changers will enable firms to target a whole range of different people.
However, leaders must also appreciate that women do not tend to push themselves forward unless they have all the skills required, and this can stop them taking up new learning opportunities. Companies should make sure they consider the full candidates list when assigning opportunities, not just those who may have the confidence to put themselves forward.
Some of these changes in approach will be uncomfortable for leaders but are essential to create a truly gender diverse workplace. Those organisations that commit fully to the practical actions to attract more women will see their businesses grow and bridge the talent gap.