Progressing women in STEM into leadership
How does the gender gap in STEM leadership compare between academia and industry? And what is the OU doing to encourage women to take up Higher Education at every stage of their lives? Read the blog by Professor Josie A Fraser…. And hear her speak at our Conference.
I have spent the last 6 months doing Advance HE’s excellent “Top Management Programme”, a leadership development programme for the Higher Education sector, which brings together executives from 21 different universities. It has been an inspiring experience, and, importantly, we were a diverse group. I was not the only academic with a STEM background in the cohort, and we were about 50:50 gender split; a group that gives me hope for a bright future for UK Universities.
But the experience left me wondering: is that gender-balanced cohort really reflective of the leadership of the sector? Are higher education providers promoting women and men equally all the way to the top table? Or is the situation in HE more like the situation in STEM companies, where there is a gender gap across organisations and an even bigger gender gap in organisational leadership?
I started by wondering if my perceptions of the gender gap in STEM leadership overall were accurate, and went online to find out how careers in STEM companies progress for women interested in leadership. I was disappointed – but not surprised – by the information that the WISE Campaign has collected on STEM companies in the UK. While there’s notable progress in the FTSE 100 – with more than half of the biggest companies in the UK “STEM-focused”, and an increasing proportion of those have a Board that’s at least 33% female (40% of FTSE 100 STEM companies had a 1/3rd or greater female Board presence in 2018, up from 26% in 2017) – there’s still a lot to do.
Is it any different elsewhere? The Silicon Valley Bank report on Women in Technology Leadership interviewed technology and healthcare start-up company founders/executives in the US, UK, Canada and China. They found that only 56% of start-ups had any women in executive positions and only 40% of start-ups had any women on the Board of Directors. Despite widespread acknowledgement of the issue, only 7% of the start-up companies surveyed had committed to gender-based promotion/hiring targets for executive/board positions, and just less than a quarter had set gender-related targets for promotion and hiring across all levels of the company. China had the best performance, by the way, in terms of the proportion of start-up companies with women involved at a leadership level.
ISACA talked to women leaders in technology in 2017 and reported a series of barriers and reasons for women being underrepresented. 8 out of 10 of the female leaders surveyed had a male boss, 9 out of 10 respondents felt that the lack of women was a concern but they also pointed out that only 1 in 5 of their organisations would be described as ‘very committed’ to hiring/promoting women in tech roles (and another 1 in 5 of their organisations were described as ‘not at all committed’ to hiring/promoting female talent). Women technology leaders felt that lack of mentors and role models, gender-biased workplaces with unequal growth opportunities and pay differentials for the same skills, were contributing to the underrepresentation of women in technology and at leadership levels in technology companies. It’s partly the pipeline – women leaders mentioned that educational institutions don’t encourage girls into technology subjects and that IT is perceived as a male-dominated field – but it’s way beyond a pipeline problem in terms of promotion, as Amazon’s Fiona McDonnell noted in her recent blog for WISE.
The PwC UK report on Women in Technology “Time to close the gender gap” backed this idea – only 22% of young men and women (A level and University students in the sample population) could name a famous woman in technology compared to 66% able to name a famous man. More than a quarter of female participants said that they were put off a technology career as the sector is male-dominated, and only 3% of girls said that technology was their first choice of career. Indeed, only 16% of female participants were aware of technology careers having been suggested to them as an option, compared to 33% of male participants. PwC’s survey participants showed that making the world a better place is highly motivating for today’s young women, so if we want to get more women into STEM, we need to highlight how technology and science is a force for good
But building role models and leaders goes beyond attracting young women into STEM subjects. We need to attract them, keep them, and promote them. PwC suggested demonstrable leadership initiatives, sponsorship for high performing women, and return to work schemes are all important. How can STEM companies, and STEM teaching in Universities and schools keep women? And if fewer young women choose STEM subjects at school, what alternative routes can we develop to allow women to enter STEM careers?
I’m proud that the Open University offers anyone, including those who don’t have the ‘usual’ entry qualifications, an opportunity to pursue higher education. We have women who did not choose any science A levels, or who didn’t do A levels at all, studying and succeeding in STEM subjects, often while working, raising a family, caring for dependents or coping with a disability – and sometimes while doing all of those things. Our inspiring students never fail to convince me that higher education can and does change things – for individuals and for society. Just look at some of the inspiring stories as we celebrate our 50th year in 2019.
So Universities and other organisations in the education sector can help with the pipeline, but how are we doing at delivering balanced leadership in our own institutions? If those students choose to stay in academia, delivering STEM education and research, what happens to them and their chances of progression? Is it better, or worse, than the situation if they move into the STEM business sector?
According to the latest Equality Challenge Unit report on all HE staff, in the 16/17 academic year, 54% of staff in UK Higher Education were female, with the proportion of women in academic roles at 46%, and the proportion of women in professional support staff roles at 63%. Looking at STEM, Engineering disciplines tend to have very high percentages of male staff, and nursing/allied health disciplines tend to have very high percentages of female staff. There are signs of some gender challenges beyond the disciplines, however. For example, while most academics (male and female) hold teaching and research contracts, there are more women on teaching only contracts (31% of women academics are on such contracts, vs 24% of men). While parity of esteem for teaching and research expertise is widely talked about in HE, there’s no doubt that in many institutions, research tracks are more prestigious and more likely to lead to promotion to professor. So having more women on teaching only contracts challenges women’s promotions prospects and won’t help us to close the gender promotions and pay gaps that still feature across Universities:
ECU data show that in STEM subjects, men account for 73% of senior management, and make-up 79% of the professoriate. For the highest academic pay band, half as many women academics (10%) compared to male academics (21%) were at that pay level in the 16/17 academic year.
It’s even more challenging if you look at the effects of the intersectionality of race and gender on reaching professorial status or academic senior management. 67.5% of professors are white men, 23% are white women, 7.5% are BME men, and just 2% of professors are BME women. 65.5% of senior managers are white men, 30% are white women, 3.5% are BME men, and only 1% are BME women.
So for BME, LGBTQI+, disabled, female scientists/engineers/technologists and mathematicians – where do they see ‘people like me’ reflected in the senior researchers, teachers, managers and leaders of their Universities?
STEM is changing the world. In a time when climate change, mass migration of people, food security and other major concerns affect millions of people, when artificial intelligence and the pace of change of technology has the potential to mean that children in primary schools now will have jobs that don’t exist yet, we need people with a wide range of perspectives in every aspect of STEM and especially in STEM leadership.