We often look at the world of tech startups through rose colored glasses. After all, these companies are the future IBMs, Oracles and SAPs – long-lived, large scale organizations that have generated not just large returns for shareholders, but massive value for customers, employees and partners. Yet despite their obvious focus on future value building and innovation, startup tech companies have a startlingly poor record when it comes to hiring women. Ann Hoang from STEMINIST explains:

Women make up less than 40 percent of the workforce at Apple, Google, LinkedIn, Facebook, Yahoo and Twitter, and no more than one-fifth of the technical workforce at those companies.

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Blair Hanley Frank takes this further, citing “a 2011 study found that 15 percent of women who graduated with an engineering degree did not go on to work in engineering, while another 20 percent entered the engineering workforce and then summarily left for another industry.”

Clearly there are not just factors that prevent women from taking up STEM related roles – there are also factors that drive them elsewhere once they have them.

Lynne Y Williams refers to this phenomenon as IT’s vanishing women. “A 2004 study by the National Center for Women & IT revealed that a large number of women who already occupy upper-level IT-related positions are leaving the industry at a startling rate, with “56% of technical women leav[ing] at the ‘mid-level’ point” (Ashcraft & Blithe, 2010) of their careers, a rate almost double that of equivalent male colleagues.” Williams calls out the “hostile, macho culture” in the IT workplace along with isolation, lack of opportunity and support from and through management.

Essentially, this challenge is cultural, not knowledge, skill or capacity based and this means it can be changed. My view is that we can put a STEM in STEM for women:

  • Support network – women need to actively cultivate their OWN support network. Don’t rely on the creation of networks within the workplace. Go out of your way to create advisors, supporters, colleagues and collaborators. Turn this into a personal communications program and tend to it often.
  • Tenacity – there are always going to be people who will discourage you, take credit for your work and suggest alternative careers. Women can succeed in STEM careers, but they must be tenacious and focused – and when in doubt, call on that Support Network.
  • Engage equally – while it is fantastic to be recognized by your female peers, also seek out recognition and accolades from the men in your field. Similarly, fill your team with not just the brilliant and upcoming women you meet, choose also male team members who will complement and enhance your team.
  • Mentors – a good mentor can make a huge difference. As Emily Carter, Princeton University’s Gerhard R. Andlinger Professor in Energy and the Environment explains, “Young women should learn to recognize good mentors, who can be very important to overcoming a hostile environment. And they don’t have to be women”.

Nina nets it out: We continue to see women leaders deserting the IT field in great numbers. By taking a personal and focused approach, women can help lead the way in rebalancing the industry and setting an example for future generations.

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