Unconscious gender bias — and how to avoid it
Recruiting women in STEM More companies should be running unconcious bias training and women in leadership programmes if female STEM talent is to be found and promoted into senior positions.
“Diversity isn't a nice-to-have,” insists Maria Ferraro, Chief Financial Officer, Siemens UK. “It's a must-have. Organisations must have diversity at all levels going forward because, otherwise, from a competitiveness perspective, they'll be left behind.”
Even so, Ferraro notes with incredulity that certain STEM areas are still male-dominated. “More needs to be done to attract women into STEM roles,” she admits.
“We make up 50 per cent of the market, after all. So if you don't tap into that 50 per cent, shame on you.”
Not that many of them are doing so deliberately. Unconscious bias is partly to blame. “I don't think exclusion is done maliciously,” says Ferraro. “It's just that, as an employer, you could be picking someone who looks like you, who went to the same school as you, and who had the same training as you. Therefore — unconsciously — female numbers haven't increased as quickly as they should.” To counter this, Ferraro notes that “anyone who manages anyone” should receive unconscious bias training in order to highlight the issue.
Promoting the message in schools
Yet in many ways things have changed for the better. Ferraro — who points out that she's an example of “the M in STEM” — has seen it happen in real time. She was promoted to a leadership role at a young age and remembers that, earlier in her career, she would often be the only woman in the room. “But I can honestly say I was never made to feel unwelcome,” she says. “Have I faced barriers because I'm a woman? No. Have there been times when I've had to adjust because the room is 95 per cent male? Yes. Has that got better in the last five to 10 years? Absolutely.”
"It's so important to take the 'women can do STEM' message directly into schools."
It's part of Ferraro's job to ensure that things continue in that direction, and that diverse candidates are continually brought into the company. “It's not a quick fix,” she says. “We have to build confidence in young girls and women to show them that they can be part of this sector. It's really important to me that every person — regardless of their gender, race and culture — feels included and that they have an equal opportunity to succeed.”
That's not easy because stereotypes are planted early, says Ferraro. Which is why she believes it's so important to take the 'women can do STEM' message directly into schools, and why her company has created a project which does just that, targeting girls between 10 and 14. “We do this in partnership with BBC science presenter Fran Scott who presents an interactive display, intertwining stories and the accomplishments of women in everything from pyrotechnics to aviation engineering. Towards the end, you can see the lightbulbs going on over the girls' heads and the looks that say: 'We can do this!'”
Leadership training programmes
Getting female talent into the industry is only half the story, however. Making sure they rise up the ranks is also key with the support of women in leadership training programmes. “We have to equip women with practical leadership tools so that they can navigate into senior positions,” says Ferraro.
“Good leadership comes from women realising a belief in themselves.”
Still, wherever women are on the STEM career ladder, they can be supported with company schemes such as flexible working, for example. Ferraro is adamant that job flexibility isn't just a 'female only' topic, however. “Partners co-parent, or have to look after elderly parents, and so divide up the caring duties,” she says. “This discussion always focuses on women wanting flexibility; but for every few women who ask me about it, a man will ask about it too.”
So what's Ferraro message to any woman who says that it's difficult or even impossible to rise to a senior STEM position? “I would say that is absolutely untrue. You make of it what you can and companies will allow opportunities to come to fruition for you. Don't let the stereotypes ruin the experience for you because if you want a career in this industry then you can have it. Many of the barriers are just perceptional — and those that really do exist are in the process of being broken down. And it's an exciting career. As engineers, scientists and mathematicians, you'll be at the forefront of solving the world’s most difficult questions. So don't be dismayed. Stick with it. You can succeed.”