5 Things Companies Can Do Right Now to Decrease Gender Bias in STEAM

November 5, 2019Naveen Mehta

Research has shown that failing to appropriately account for gender in companies who create, design and implement in a variety of STEAM applications is a recipe for a distorted and sometimes dangerous reality. For example, one study analyzing the effectiveness of seat belts found that seat belts were less effective when women were believed to be “scaled-down” versions of men. This is a common argument found in biological studies, as well.  For instance, since heart disease affects men and women differently, then failing to associate conditions unique to women leaves them at risk for heart issues and coronary heart disease. 

Researchers have shown that these issues can be avoided by including women in research and the workplace. There are several ways companies can begin to rectify these errors, and one of them is by simply working to decrease gender bias in workplace culture. Gender bias is when one gender is preferred over another. So, in the case of company hiring practices, a gender-biased environment would reflect men being hired at a higher rate than women. You’ve probably heard of the gender pay gap, which is where men are paid higher than women (and often other minorities) for doing the same job. 

Using metrics to identify where gender bias exists and tackling it in the workplace and in STEAM-based environments should be a company’s top priority. It’s important to remember that gender bias also exists in tandem with the discrimination of people of colour, trans, LGBTQ+, Indigenous/Aboriginal and people with disabilities. In any scenario where a woman experiences bias in the workplace because of her gender, she is more likely to experience such barriers because of her race, sexual diversity, ethnicity, and/or physical abilities. An intersectional lens is essential when building an inclusive work environment.

Here are five things that your company can do right now to decrease gender bias in STEAM.

1. Educate on the issue

Educating your employees, upper-level management, and even clients on the complexities of gender bias is a crucial start to making a change in your own company. Women often must manage uneducated colleagues and deliver the same quality of work with lower access to resources, equal opportunities or even a seat at the table. By educating your workplace, you are taking the first step in creating a culture of awareness. 

There also needs to be educational awareness on which tools are appropriate to address the issue. Just because you have a passion for reducing gender bias in your environment does not necessitate that the culture will change. Five geoscientists and engineers published a study on increasing female roles in STEM. They identified that there was no shortage of women with STEM degrees but rather a lack of supportive resources. They laid out these seven practical steps that would easily affect change:

“(1) Advocate for more women in prestige roles; (2) Promote high-achieving females; (3) Create awareness of gender bias; (4) Speak up; (5) Get better support for return to work; (6) Redefine success; and, (7) Encourage more women to enter the discipline at a young age.” (2018)

Actionable: Using only internal personnel can be problematic. Experts should be brought in to educate, measure and manage the nuances of workplace gender bias in a way that aims to eradicate it. Outsource these if you where you need. Simple lunch-and-learns won’t cut it.

2. Tally up the numbers

In STEAM environments, metrics are a familiar way to identify successes and failures. Data analytics can quickly provide insight into the experiences that women face in your company’s workplace. They can also inform a company about what they’re doing right and wrong when trying to implement change. It is essential to be measuring the right things. If you don’t have the numbers about your culture and where it ranks on things like inclusivity, empathy, compassion and civility, then you are behind. These should already be identified.  

Additionally, there are resources out there that can tell you why diversity in STEAM matters and how metrics can be used systematically to drive inclusion. The technology has finally caught up with science. Research on identifying metrics and positive outcomes for organizational behaviour change can help you re-design company culture.

Actionable: Utilize resources and expertise to measure inclusion so that you can streamline these processes. The numbers don’t lie: bringing in outside support is worth the investment and will increase the potential for new and innovative ideas.

3. Change your hiring practices

Engineer and woman of colour Debbi Chachra believes that the issue of gender bias in engineering needs to be addressed head-on in hiring. Even though some argue that gender bias has technically been structurally eradicated, studies have shown that sociocultural biases still existed on an unconscious level. The number of female musicians rose sharply when, for example, orchestras adopted blind auditions. Adopting alternate hiring practices will not only increase the chances of a more diverse team, but it can also make room for more creative output. 

If you are seeing a drop in potential female candidates, make alliances with organizations that are dedicated groups for girls interested in STEAM. By encouraging cross-educational relationships, it shows that your company is actively seeking to increase diversity not only now but in the future. Examples of organizations dedicated to increasing girls and women in STEAM include the Association for the Advancement of University Women (AAUW), Girls of Steel and Circuit Cubes.

Actionable: What you don’t know will hurt you. Try to implement alternative tactics like taking actual and unconscious bias out of the hiring equation by utilizing metrics to hire the most inclusive candidates who are qualified for the job. You can build an inclusive environment workplace by hiring people who have high inclusion scores. Also, build relationships with organizations that are working to increase girls and women in STEAM in your community.

4. Squash the toxic culture

It only takes one person with sexist behaviours to influence your workplace culture. Pervasive sexist stereotypes, toxic interpersonal relationships and the continuation of hostile behaviours encourage highly skilled women or women with high potential to leave. Not only is that pushing away reliable and talented employees, but the economic cost of turnover is immense. SHRM studies suggest that every time an employee leaves, it costs, on average, six to nine months’ salary to replace that employee.  

Additionally, according to the Harvard Business Review, women were 45% more likely than their peers to leave an industry within a year due to what they considered a toxic work environment. Toxic culture not only deals with day-to-day interactions but also in the practices that your company supports or fails to address. Addressing ways that gender might influence work performance, like maternity leave, will also be a step in the right direction. 

Like a building foundation, companies in STEAM must first build the foundation of a psychologically and personally safe environment. Once this is established, you can then address things like an increased sense of belonging, inclusion drivers and engagement. Creating a safe environment will allow you to follow what the research shows – that building inclusive workplace cultures will encourage women and those with additional social barriers instead of driving them away.   

Actionable: You must first interrogate your current workplace environment. By measuring the right things, such as inclusion and emotional intelligence, and not engagement, you can set a baseline for the culture your company wants to build. 

5. Give your female employees a raise

If highly skilled female employees are deserving of a raise, bonus or promotion, then you must address that. Have a meeting with your female employees to inform them of your company’s awareness and the changes that are happening. This will hold you and your team accountable. Speaking to your female employees (with care in sensitive areas) may also provide insight into the nuances of the culture at your company.  

Additionally, placing women in leadership and advising roles can redefine what a leader looks like in your workplace. This puts a new face on what success means in your company and might even encourage women in areas where opportunity seemed scarce before. Women looking to rise in the organization might feel more inclined to believe that the cohorts would be supportive of their presence and speak up about inequalities around treatment and remuneration. 

Actionable: Employee reviews could be influenced by gender bias, just like hiring practices. Revisit your employee reviews and take gender into account. Take advantage of metrics when considering performance, gender and other social barriers.

Conclusion

Not good enough? Looking to do more past growing gender equity in your workplace? If you’d like to make broader systemic change to the STEAM sectors, then consider advocating for legislative change, targeting lower grade-level outreach, and incorporating STEAM-based classroom projects to help make a change at younger levels

While making changes in your workplace culture might not happen overnight, it is paramount that your company begins to implement these inclusion techniques. In doing so, you will build a safer and more inclusive environment for all your employees. There is no better time to start than right now.

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