The recent death of mathematician Katherine Johnson, a “hidden figure” whose expert calculations helped send the first Americans into space yet went largely unrecognized for decades, raises the question of how many brilliant STEM women are going unrecognized right now. And how many more never have the chance to fulfill the promise of their talent and determination.
And yet that’s what we do. Women still hold only about a quarter of all STEM jobs, with a significantly smaller percentage in top positions. Those confronting both race and gender barriers (as Katherine Johnson did) face an even steeper climb: African American women received just 2.5 percent of bachelor’s degrees in physical sciences in 2016, 2.1 percent of degrees in math or statistics and a mere 1 percent of engineering degrees. Black women and men combined hold only 5 percent of all managerial positions in STEM jobs.
The difficulties women face in STEM workplaces have been well documented in recent years. Our own research has found that, over time, more than half of highly qualified women in science, engineering and technology leave their jobs, in part due to hostile work environments infused with bias against women. A 2018 study from PEW Research Center revealed that half of women in STEM fields have experienced gender discrimination at work.
Since we have studied the problem again and again, it’s time to turn to solutions. If employers want the best talent, they must address their workplace cultures and take intentional steps to create environments that encourage, sustain, and advance women.
The good news is that they can. In our national study on how to advance women in STEM, we surveyed 3,212 respondents with STEM credentials and asked them questions to determine if they felt they were advancing in their careers and intended to stay at their jobs. We also showed respondents a list of popular programs that employers use to support women in STEM and asked them if any of these initiatives were in place at their companies.
Then, we calculated the percent increase in the number of women who are advancing and intend to stay at companies with a specific program compared to the number at companies without that program. We called this percent increase the “boost” for women in STEM.
Finally, we ranked the top initiatives according to which ones give the greatest “boost” to women in STEM. The result: Some initiatives were associated with a dramatically bigger boost than others. Here are the top three we recommend to employers who want to create workplace cultures where all women can thrive and do their best work.
- Commit to pay equity (a “boost” of 113 percent). If employers want to increase the number of STEM women they retain and advance, this should be a top priority. Pay equity gives an even greater boost (159 percent) to the number of black women who advance and intend to stay in their STEM jobs—probably because they have more financial responsibilities than White women. (In a separate study, we found that, in addition to facing persistent wage and wealth gaps, one in five black professionals--more than double the rate of white professionals—provide financial support to parents, siblings and extended family members.)
- Provide connections with female or minority consumers (a “boost” of 97 percent). STEM jobs often focus on abstract functions—even when the work has a social mission such as health care or education. When STEM women are connected to female or minority consumers, they get the satisfaction of seeing, firsthand, the impact of their work. The boost increases to 123 percent and 161 percent for Asian and black STEM women respectively, perhaps because they are personally connected to these often-underserved markets.
- Support innovative side projects (a “boost” of 78 percent). Giving women time for side projects ranks third among company initiatives that boost the number of STEM women who advance and intend to stay in their jobs. In prior research, we’ve found that STEM women are risk-averse because they pay a big penalty for failure. Plus, their contributions are often overlooked. Side projects are lower-stakes, and give women freedom to experiment, innovate, and shine.
With leadership and resolve, all of these initiatives are implementable, but they take time to take hold within company cultures. In the meantime, women looking to rise in STEM careers need not wait. In our research, we also examined what women themselves can do to achieve success in STEM.
To do so, we looked at how those respondents who had already achieved success behave differently from other women in STEM. We defined successful women according to three conditions: They are senior-level, satisfied with their current jobs, and respected for their expertise. (Almost one in five of women—19 percent—surveyed met these criteria, showing that success is not impossible to attain.) Here are three of the behaviors that successful STEM women are more likely to exhibit:
- They show confidence. Successful women in STEM have confidence in their abilities—and manage to sustain it. In fact, we find successful women are more than twice as likely to be extremely confident in their abilities compared to other women in STEM (39 percent versus 19 percent). To maintain their confidence, the women we interviewed told us they engaged in a variety of habits—from mentoring less-experienced colleagues to developing a “squad” of peers to call upon for advice in tough times.
- They make sure their ideas get heard. Most women in STEM have had their contributions ignored or been spoken over. When this happens, successful women are more likely to confront the situation. Rather than let their ideas be stolen, they speak up to claim them. In interviews, successful STEM women told us they advocate for themselves in different ways—sometimes directly, during a meeting, and sometimes in a private conversation afterwards.
- They are authentic. Many successful women in STEM (78 percent) say they bring their authentic selves to work. This means being genuine about who they are, how they communicate, and even in their dress and hairstyle choices. When employees feel comfortable being themselves, they can bring their full energy and creativity into their jobs. Particularly in STEM, this authenticity is prized.
Katherine Johnson, and her black female colleagues made famous by the movie Hidden Figures, overcame extraordinary barriers of race, gender, mid-20th century segregation, and even the gravitational pull of space. They paved the way for other women who manage to attain success in an unwelcoming sector. We should absolutely honor their memory, and recognize their accomplishments.
But we can’t stop there. It’s time to create a world where it is no longer extraordinary for great STEM accomplishments to come from women. It’s time that we have no more “hidden figures” in STEM or anywhere else in our society.