How can we tackle the unconscious bias faced by women in Stem?

In this contributed blog post Maria McKavanagh, COO of Verv  discusses unconscious bias in the technology industry and how we can tackle this issue faced by women every day. 

While we are seeing a tangible rise in the number of companies committing to gender equality, the issue of gender bias within the science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) community is a very real one. In fact, despite industry giants investing millions into improving conditions for female employers, woman make up just 14% of the Stem workforce in the UK.

This rather feeble representation can be attributed to a number of factors, but a significant part is due to unconscious bias within businesses, and society as a whole. We’re all guilty of making instinctual judgements about people we meet, basing our judgements on previous life experiences and limited background knowledge. However, this outlook has subconsciously impacted the hiring process, with male managers in a heavily male industry often instinctively favouring people who are like themselves.

This bias was reinforced in a study co-authored by McKinsey and Sheryl Sandberg’s LeanIn.org which revealed that on average, women continue to be hired and promoted at lower rates than their male counterparts. The study found that women are 18% less likely to be promoted at the first step up to manager, and that women are underrepresented in managerial roles at every level of the corporate pipeline. Since the vast majority of CEOs come from these roles, this dramatically reduces the chances of women reaching the very top.

While the government has started to address this issue from the top down, running campaigns around gender imbalance and introducing gender pay gap reporting for all companies over 250 people, a lot of work still needs to be done to help address unconscious bias. Education is a great starting point. We need to start providing unconscious bias training to people in management and hiring roles to start the conversation around bias in their own workplaces. With nearly half of men thinking that women are well represented in leadership roles, despite only one in ten senior leaders being women, it’s clear that this education can’t come quick enough.

The issues surrounding unconscious bias stems from the beginning corporate pipeline, as from the onset, far few women are hired than men. This bias can pervade every element of the hiring process, starting from when companies advertise a new role. A start-up, for example, may be using their own network to promote new roles, as opposed to mainstream recruitment websites, often meaning that new hires are likely to originate from within the immediate circles of existing employees, which in a Stem network might be limited to fewer women in the first place.

Companies also need to start reviewing their hiring process if they want to see meaningful change within the industry. Aside from bias training, hiring  managers need to ensure that their questions don’t discriminate against either sex. There are a number of organisations who have programmes to help people understand and prevent unconscious bias in the workplace, with WISE leading the way in the UK.

Addressing this issue is critical and we need to start acting against unconscious bias in order to help women in science and technology achieve their full potential. We are witnessing a wave of talented women dropping out of these industries, and rather than blaming the ‘parenthood gap’, we should be shining a spotlight on why women are leaving their professions for good. By encouraging women to speak up and share their stories we can start to take steps to re-balance the bias which has overshadowed Stem in the past decade.

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