There is a well developed body of research exploring why young women and men exhibit different career preferences, in particular, why choosing engineering and STEM professions have traditionally not been a top priority among women.
One of the key mechanisms that many have suggested in normalising tech, engineering and STEM professions to young women has been exposure to role models. It has been shown that these role models may positively influence their attitudes toward choosing a career in engineering (Hackett et al. 1989). We know that role models help young people to identify the profession they aspire to with their own experiences – as such, female role models are important in encouraging young women to pursue science-related careers, and research has found that women respond positively to this encouragement in pursuit of their STEM trajectories (Tan et al. 2013).
Research from Kekelis et al. explores the theme of tech careers, focusing solely on the aspirations of young women. They also posit that social norms have an important bearing on young women’s likelihood to choose a tech career, however, they suggest that young women who do study technology, are more likely than young men to work on clerical skills, in courses that do not prepare them for careers in advanced technology fields.
The assertion that some researcher have made – that young women are both less inclined to pursue a tech career, and if they do, enter a role that demands fewer tech skills – is highly debated. Wang et al. look at Maths and STEM performance, and the career preferences that young people express. They find that despite the gender gap narrowing over the last 10 years for young men and women taking mathematics, females continue to be less likely to pursue STEM careers than men (Ceci and Williams 2007; National Science Foundation 2011).
Different theories have been pushed forward to explain the underrepresentation of women in the STEM fields. These range from gender differences in mathematical ability, gender difference in self awareness of ability, hobbies and interests, and occupational and lifestyle values and preferences.
It has been found that mathematics ability alone is not the determinant of lower representation of women in STEM intensive jobs. In fact, among men and women with comparable aptitude in maths, women were more likely to do better than men in communication – interpersonal skills like verbal communication are often described by employers as valuable (and hard to teach) attributes of productive, and rounded workers (Park et al. 2008).
Young women were far less inclined to choose a tech career as a future preference, at 30% of young people, compared to 70% young men. Some of these issues stem from the norms that have been established through structures like recruitment processes. To reduce gender bias in your recruitment processes, you can:
- Use gender neutral language to advertise tech vacancies. The use of particular words and phrases will have an impact on whether men or women feel able, or qualified to apply for a job – for example, Gaucher et al.’s analysis shows that company use of language reinforces gender inequality. Companies should therefore use tools to assess and eliminate gender bias, a good first step is to understand what extent the advertisements that are currently being used include gender coding. Matfield’s Gender Decoder for Job Ads (which uses Gaucher et al.’s research) informs the user whether the ad that is pasted into the text box is masculine, or feminine coded.
- Ensure that tech jobs are advertised in places that men and women are equally likely to see. Some publications, have a predominantly male readership and tailor content to appeal to this demographic – therefore vacancies that are exclusively advertised in these publications serve to reinforce a gender bias in potential applicants. Employers should not only look at the content within their job advertisements to eliminate gender bias, but also ensure that the location of their job advertisements are conducive to a gender equal readership.
- Be clear on your company culture, and tell people about it. In most cases, people will have strong preferences for working at a company based on their pre-conceptions of that organisation, informed by what they see of the company in public spheres, like the media, and from friends and family. As such, companies should strive to be open and transparent about issues like pay, culture and equal opportunities.