We know that there are many young girls in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) talent pipelines. Studies have found that the majority of girls under 13 years old have dreams to become future doctors, computer scientists, and engineers.
But when these girls grow up into women in the workforce, that excitement about their future in STEM dims. Their confidence about their careers overall takes a dive. Microsoft research found that while 78% of girls ages 10-18 believe they can make it to the top of any field, working women have tempered expectations. Only 4 in 10 women in the workforce agree that they will be treated equally to men in their fields. And in STEM, 36% of women acknowledged their job would be easier if they were a man.
What happened to that excitement? New Stanford research gives insight into how women are made to feel alienated in STEM fields, proving that the lack of women in technology is more than a pipeline problem — it’s an endemic structural issue.
Research: Men speak, while women are marginalized
Stanford University graduate student Alison Wynn and professor Shelley Correl observed 84 recruiting sessions hosted at Stanford for graduating STEM students to see what messages were being communicated in these first impressions. The results were grim. Through their presentations, interactions styles, and the images they projected, recruiters were making women in technology feel unwelcome before they even applied to a STEM job, the research found.
In a typical recruiting session, the researchers found that male employees would play the expert role, explaining the technology behind the company and leading the presentations. Meanwhile, women employees would be out of the spotlight, setting up food and decorations and handing out raffle tickets. At one company, a “male presenter urged the students to pass their raffle tickets down to the ‘lovely ladies.’ ”
If women recruiters did speak, it was most likely to be about work-life balance and company culture.
“If the company sends a female engineer, often she has no speaking role at all. If she does speak, her segment centers on ‘company culture’ or the company’s vision. Other women recruiters are in charge of handing out swag and other materials or managing logistics. The ‘hard-core’ technical material belongs to the male presenters,” the study stated.
A ‘frat house’ environment
Women would be further alienated by the gendered swag and male cultural references being used in a presentation. One company handed out notebooks that read, “Finding your faults, just like mom.” One CEO used Mad Men’s 1960’s sexist protagonist Don Draper to frame his whole presentation.
“By emphasizing geeky masculinity, they risk appealing only to a narrow range of men and virtually no women. Smaller companies, in particular, compound this problem through the use of gendered swag, frequent references to geeky movies and TV-shows, and masculine cultural icons. The result is an environment that often feels like a fraternity house,” the study concluded.
Start-up founders would mention the lack of sleep employees would get, as a point of pride. Without apparent irony, one male presenter for a startup told students that they could visit “the office ‘any time of day: 12 a.m., 2 a.m.’, because employees will be there all times of day or night.” Citing research on how women are expected to take the bulk of family responsibilities, the researchers noted that this lack of work-life balance would be especially off-putting to women students.
Overall, the male-dominated messages were discouraging to women, signaling that they would not be a good company fit. They show us that the pipeline problem may not lie with promising individuals being overlooked, but with companies sending the wrong message that not all are welcome.
Yes, you can attract women into technology careers. STEM is one of the fastest-growing industries. But the next step of inclusion is making these women engineers and scientists feel welcome enough to stay.
And for that to happen, strong women candidates need to see strong women role models not just surviving at companies, but thriving.