Revealing the Factors That Restrict the Recruiting of STEM Women (Part 1 of 2)

by  Trena Luong and Dr. John Sullivan

We are deeply disturbed at the “there’s little we can do” attitude of the leadership at most major tech firms towards increasing the number of STEM (i.e. Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) women recruited into their firms. The leaders of these firms seem to think that their posting of shallow diversity metrics was sufficient. Because males dominate many of the high-tech leadership roles, it’s a bit arrogant for them to assume that they know and understand the barriers that STEM women face.

Instead, we propose they use a more scientific approach that uses survey research techniques to identify the actual barriers that STEM women face when applying for a job in a high-tech culture. Only after you pinpoint the actual barriers can executives then take the precise steps necessary to mitigate or overcome those barriers. Rather than waiting for these hesitant leaders at high-tech firms to act, we have been conducting our own interviews and survey research with the goal of identifying each of the barriers that STEM women recruits face. Our research has found that there are four categories of factors that contribute to the STEM women recruiting problem.

They are 1) the weak supply; 2) the perceived barriers that restrict them from applying for jobs; 3) the negative male culture that frustrates and discourages women; and 4) the biases against women embedded in most corporate hiring and promotion processes.

In this part 1 of a 2-part article, we will address the first two categories, the weak supply of STEM women, and the perceived barriers that restrict STEM women from applying for jobs. 

CATEGORY 1 — A Narrow Focus on “The Supply” Does Not Have Any Short-term Impact

We find that many tech firms are more than willing to work on “the supply problem” of STEM women because it makes them at least look like they are doing something. However, increasing the supply is strictly a long-term solution. Due to the lengthy education requirements, the supply of STEM women can’t realistically be increased for at least five years. Donating money and having executives speak to groups of young females is certainly a good idea, but it allows for no accountability to any single firm or even an assurance that new STEM women graduates will end up at the firm that made the donation. Because most major tech firms failed to move beyond publishing their metrics and the encouragement of young females, we would label the diversity approaches taken by Google, Yahoo, LinkedIn, and Twitter, etc. as “lazy or shortsighted.”

It is obvious that they have avoided doing the tough things that would permanentlychange the way women approach changing jobs and how they are treated at tech firms. Even though we support increasing the supply over the long-term, no matter how many STEM women eventually graduate, we predict that these new grads will still be reluctant to work at most high-tech firms. That’s because each individual new STEM graduate will still face the same barriers related to accepting new jobs in a male-dominated culture, its negative process biases, and encouraging male behaviors. As a result, we urge high-tech executives to support increasing the supply and then go the next step to design a systematic approach for identifying these recruiting barriers and finally to work vigorously to minimize each one of them.

Our research has led us to the conclusion that nothing will really change for STEM women unless the recruiting barriers are systematically identified and at least partially mitigated.

CATEGORY 2 – The Barriers Related to Applying for a New Job

Surprisingly, at the beginning of our work, most of the studies and research revealed the barriers involved mostly self-reported anecdotal evidence from a handful of STEM women. We challenged ourselves to take a more scientific approach in order to make sure that we identified the largest number of barriers that women face when considering a new job. We used a variety of research approaches over several months including Internet, telephone, in-person interviews with STEM women, interviews with recruiters, and Boolean Internet searches for existing research and data.

Because our recommended solution for any tech firm that wants to get ahead is to recruit talented STEM women away from other firms, we have focused on the barriers that inhibit STEM women from applying for new jobs. By identifying and then mitigating these recruiting barriers, women will then change jobs more frequently, and as a result, they will also be promoted more rapidly. The real and perceived barriers that STEM women face when considering a new job opportunity include:

The top 11 barriers that prevent women from applying for and accepting new jobs

The barriers that we find to have greatest impact are listed first.

  1. Corporations lump all STEM women together – the first indication that corporate leaders don’t fully understand women is revealed by the fact that they lump all women into a single category. Whenever you lump everyone together (just like they do when it comes to diversity) you show that you don’t appreciate the real differences that occur among STEM women of different ages, ethnic backgrounds, experience levels, and family status. In addition, because tech firms don’t conduct market research in order to identify the unique way that individual STEM women look for a job, their needs, their issues, and their job acceptance criteria, their generic recruiting efforts will always come up short.
  2. A new job means having to prove yourself again – many STEM women have reported that they feel that they must work significantly harder in order to prove themselves. They also know that if they take a new job, they will certainly have to re-prove themselves to a new group of managers and co-workers, especially in a male-dominated workplace. Having to “prove yourself again” is so uncomfortable that it is one of the primary barriers that prevent STEM women from even considering a new job.
  3. A new job may not be customized to their needs — some STEM women lacked the inertia to look for a new job because even though it may have taken a while, their current job was customized to their needs. Also, if their new manager is well intentioned, it is unlikely that any new job will be customized to their needs and preferences. As a result, they may mistakenly assume that a new job is not a better job simply because it is full of unknowns and it is not already tailored to their current needs and interests. And if they do get a customized job, they may face criticism related to preferential treatment that they will surely get from male colleagues with more tenure.
  4. The self-confidence barrier to try new things – you shouldn’t over-generalize, but during our research, many STEM women indicated that they have lower self-confidence levels than most men. This restricts them from taking risks on new ventures, which includes applying for and accepting new jobs. For example, there is evidence indicating that women are often less likely to have the confidence to apply for a new job when they don’t meet 100 percent of the required skills and experience, while most men have the confidence to apply when they think they meet at least 60 percent of the requirements.
  5. A higher fear of failure – along with less confidence to try new things, some STEM women also have a high aversion to failing at anything they do. This fear may be reinforced by the fact that many women strive to be role models and they fear that their failure to get a new job will discourage other women from trying. Because STEM women are often more open and sharing than men, they may feel less comfortable with a job application failure because they know they will have to share it widely with their family and network. Because of their fear of failure, even the slightest amount of negative feedback or even a lack of feedback during the recruiting process may cause them to prematurely drop out. When these fear factors are taken together, it is not surprising that STEM women often report that they “talked themselves out of it” and as a result, they never even submit an application for a new job.
  6. Their preference toward remaining comfortable – one of the potential barriers that we have identified for STEM women is that they often prefer the comfort of the status quo. Because the most experienced STEM women are already working at competitor firms, they are likely to feel secure and comfortable in their present position. They don’t look for new opportunities because they don’t want to have to endure the discomfort that comes with a new job. A closely related fear is the thought of losing their current support team. Because their current team is a known factor (and the new team is not), it contributes to their comfort level and their interest in staying put. Some have a tendency to avoid many kinds of uncertainty, and as a result it takes a much more powerful recruiting and employer branding message to get them to even consider applying for a new position where they would be outside their current comfort zone.
  7. The desire-to-avoid-criticism barrier – STEM women may be reluctant to apply for and accept new jobs because their colleagues may see that action as selfish and disloyal. Because some STEM women highly value loyalty and seek to avoid confrontation and criticism (more so than men), this may cause them to avoid even the slightest appearance of attempting to leave their current team.
  8. The work and family balancing barrier – one barrier that was reported frequently was the need to balance work and family. Although not all STEM women have family responsibilities for children or aging parents, the thought that they might someday have those responsibilities causes them to resist applying for jobs or accepting where there is little scheduling flexibility or where long hours may be required. This may restrict women from applying at startups and rapidly growing larger firms. The work and family issue can be even stronger for management and leadership jobs, where long hours and relocation will be required. Even though a firm might advertise work/life balance or work-at-home options, women often find that when they search sites like or when they talk to current employees, these promises are often unfulfilled.
  9. They are strongly influenced by others – as stated previously, many STEM women are family oriented and in order to ensure that they are making the best career decision, many will consult with their key influencers (i.e. family and their spouse) before even considering a new job. Because more individuals and often more emotional individuals influence them, STEM women are more likely to get conflicting advice. Seeking a broad spectrum of advice can slow down their job search decision-making and the conflicting and emotional advice they get can cause them to stay in their current comfortable position. Corporate recruiters can often mitigate this “influence problem” by proactively reaching out to and selling these influencers.
  10. Job descriptions are “too male oriented” – something as simple as the way a job description is written can be a barrier that prevents STEM women from applying. Many high-tech job descriptions include male-centered terms like ninja, hacker, and rockstar, where some women report that they view these terms as an indication that the job is designed specifically for a male. In addition, the social media used by technologists is full of male-oriented terminology like “brogrammer” and “bromance” which further deters some women from thinking that they have a chance to get a job or to fit in with the male oriented team.  Some women may even be discouraged by typical phrases like “work hard/play hard,” because family responsibilities may restrict their ability to do either one. Descriptions for management and leadership jobs are also likely to include sports and military terminology, which can also deter women from applying for these power positions. In the same light, job descriptions seldom include terms looked upon positively by STEM women, including emotion, avoiding confrontations, and empowerment.
  11. Avoiding pay for performance – STEM women are likely to pass on a job once they find out that their pay will be based on their performance. For example, a University of Chicago study, found that when a pay for performance/bonus component was added to a job description, men were 55 percent more likely to actually submit their application than women. This difference in their “pay at risk” preference may be because competition is more of a male trait or because many women prefer stability over risk.

Our identification of the most common recruiting barriers that STEM women face marks the end of part 1 of this article. Next week on August 8, 2014, part 2 will cover the final two categories of factors (the male-oriented corporate culture and biases in the hiring process) that hinder the recruiting of STEM women.

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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