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How to solve the STEM gender equality equation

Sharon Florentine | Nov. 4, 2015
It's common knowledge that women are underrepresented in STEM careers. What's less clear is what businesses can do to better attract and retain women in their fields.

Unconscious gender bias is extremely common, even among those who consciously and vocally reject outward biases and stereotypes, she says. Unconscious biases are not an indication of what you might consciously, logically believe, but are more a reflection of the cultural norms that surrounds us from birth, Corbett says.

"As early as first grade, research has shown that students are already making a correlation between 'math' and 'male' and 'verbal' and 'female,' and those implicit biases are only strengthened by the time women enter the workforce," Corbett says. These biases can then impact how women are assessed and evaluated when they're applying for jobs, she says.

Change your evaluation and screening processes

"Businesses must change their evaluation processes to mitigate the effects of these biases and stereotypes; removing information about gender, race, age and other factors can help make sure hiring decisions are based on objective information -- though you can't remove these for an in-person screening, but it's a start," Corbett says.

There also must be an effort to hire and retain women at all levels in the workforce, Corbett says, not just a few here and there. Beware, too, of only positioning one or two women at high levels of the organization so that they aren't approachable or accessible to other women with in the company.

"Girls and women have to be able to relate to these other woman as role models and mentors. Positioning female 'superstars' might look and sound good, but it doesn't do much to impact technical biases," Corbett says.

Businesses should also focus on how they're testing and screening all applicants to make sure the process is fair to everyone; women in particular can be hindered by "stereotype threat," according to Corbett. Stereotype threat occurs when an individual fears being judged incorrectly because of the group they belong to or identify with, and it has real-world impacts. "When women in academic settings are told about the stereotypes associated with their sex, their test scores drop. That happens in the workplace, as well," she says.

Be welcoming and inclusive

Beyond the screening and hiring process, businesses should pay attention to subtle cues in their existing work environment that may signal to women that they're not welcome, Corbett says. Male-oriented posters, a "wall of fame" that includes only male employees, even the language used in job postings and in corporate communications can be exclusionary, she says.

"Managers also should be held accountable for hiring decisions and making diversity a priority. Sometimes it's easier to fall back on stereotypes when we're trying to do something quickly; 'Oh, I didn't hire her because women aren't as good at math and computing,' isn't something you'd ever say out loud, but that's an unconscious bias thing again. If you're consciously thinking about it, though, you can be more thoughtful and careful in the process," she says.


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