March 4, 2015

Retain & Advance STEM Women - It's Good for Business

Kathleen Buse, PhD is Faculty Director for the Leadership Lab for Women in STEM, Adjunct Professor at the Weatherhead School of Management, and co-founder and CIO of Advancing Women in STEM™.

Besides being CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, what do these women have in common?

  • Virginia Rometty, Chairman, CEO and President of IBM
  • Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors
  • Indra Nooyi, Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo
  • Marillyn Hewson, Chairman, CEO and President of Lockheed Martin
  • Ellen Kullman, Chairman and CEO of DuPont
  • Meg Whitman, Chairman, CEO and President of Hewlett-Packard
  • Marissa Mayer, CEO and President of Yahoo
  • Ursula Burns, Chairman and CEO of Xerox
All of these women were in the top 20 in the 2014 Fortune Most Powerful Women in Business, but interestingly, they also all have STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering or Math) degrees. Rometty, Barra, Kullman, Mayer, and Burns all have engineering degrees. Nooyi, Hewson and Whitman have science and/or math degrees.

These powerful leaders are not alone in starting their careers in a technical field. A recent study showed that 33% of all Fortune 500 CEOs have undergraduate degrees in engineering.
Many would say that the women mentioned above “beat the odds” by persevering and advancing in technology-driven and male-dominated businesses. Yet, the odds are even more daunting in the male-dominated Fortune 500, as there are only 25 women CEOs on the list, a paltry 5%. This is despite a US labor force that is 47% women. And while women comprise 52% of managers and professionals, women continue to be under-represented in STEM professions.

Women in the Profession

Science  - 45%
Technology - 22%
Engineering - 10%
Math - 25%

Organizations that intentionally recruit, retain and advance more STEM women have better business outcomes. A plethora of studies show that gender equality in leadership improves business results including increased financial and operational performance, higher creativity and innovation, better problem solving and group performance. Catalyst, McKinsey and others have shown that businesses with more gender equality in leadership have better financial performance. A recent Fast Company article states that women “make teams more effective and enhance corporate performance.”

Recruiting more girls into STEM professions is a focus of numerous organizations ranging from the Girl Scouts to the National Science Foundation. Retaining women in undergraduate STEM programs has been a focus of universities. These intentional efforts have paid off, particularly in engineering. Just this past year, women comprised 56% of the engineering graduates from Harvey Mudd College. Nationally, about 20% of engineering graduates are women as compared to about 5% in 1980.

There are programs to recruit and retain women in undergraduate STEM programs but up until now, none have focused on the retention and advancement of professional STEM women. This is an important aspect of leveraging STEM women to corporate leadership, as studies show that women leave the STEM professions at twice the rate of men.

The reasons women leave STEM organizations have been studied by a number of researchers. The Center for Work Life Policy says women leave the STEM professions due to the “hostile and macho culture” where women are isolated and marginalized. Women cite the difficult work climate and lack of promotional opportunities.

This was not my own experience in the STEM professions, and I know many women who persevered like those listed above. I sought to understand the factors contributing to women’s perseverance in organizations that are male-dominated, especially those that are technology-driven.

My research showed that women who persevere in the STEM professions have different individual characteristics than those who leave. These characteristics include self-efficacy, or belief in themselves to achieve in their profession. For example, when we asked “Ruth,” a high-level executive at a coatings company, why she stayed, she told us:

“My personality is such that I have confidence, I’m willing to go out on a limb and do whatever…I stayed because it’s a personality thing...My nature is to make the best of what I’ve got. If I have options, I am going to steer my way towards one thing or another, towards something I enjoy more, as compared to just quitting and leaving and going someplace else. Also in my personality is a lack of willingness to feel like I failed at something. In a way, quitting makes me feel like I’ve failed. I’d much rather try to actually influence something than to just quit it.”

While this may be true for some men as well, many men receive more opportunities for professional and leadership development through mentoring, networking and male-dominated cultures.

We also learned about the importance of challenging, novel work as Ruth highlighted:

“I want to work on something that's important. I want to get satisfaction out of what I do.”

From these stories and additional studies undertaken at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management, Weatherhead Executive Education has created a professional and leadership development program for women in the STEM professions. “The Leadership Lab for Women in STEM” focuses on practical solutions that empower STEM women to achieve.

In less than six months after the first Leadership Lab, we heard that 40% of the participants had actively sought and achieved a promotion. These women told us that they credit the professional and leadership development they received in the Leadership Lab program.

Retaining and advancing STEM women leads to improved organizational performance. An intentional effort is needed by organizations if they want to retain and advance women. The Leadership Lab for Women in STEM offers professional and leadership development that can be leveraged by businesses to improve bottom-line results.

The next Leadership Lab for Women in STEM begins April 28. If you are a woman in a STEM field, learn more about Weatherhead Executive Education's Leadership Lab for Women in STEM. If you are interested in keeping more women in your STEM-related industry, find out how you can support the women in your organization,

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