Want Tech Women to Stay?

Create a safe space for leadership development.

Women with degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) seem to be in the driver’s seat these days. The market for what they do is hot, and they often can take their pick of jobs. 

But beneath the surface, things aren’t quite as easy as they seem. Attrition rates for women in STEM jobs are sky-high. Statistics show more thanhalfleave for other careers—driven away by hostile work environments, feelings of isolation, and lack of supportive sponsors. Almost one-third leave within their first year on the job, according to a recent National Center for Women & Technology (NCWIT) study. When women leave, it can have a broad ripple effect on an organization. 

NCWIT finds that tech companies and departments that lack gender diversity are less likely to stay on schedule, be under budget, or perform at the top of their game, and often have lower revenues and profits. Additionally, a Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) and Watermark study concluded that having a lower percentage of female talent in an organization predicts higher levels of burnout and lower levels of job satisfaction, dedication, engagement, and meaningful work.

And even if they don’t quit, the same NCWIT study found that most organizations aren’t delivering the training opportunities women need for advancement.

These sobering facts should concern anyone who cares about organizational performance. To help nurture the careers of women in STEM, it’s time to give women the tools they needto develop their leadership skills. 

Gender-Specific Sessions

While any leadership development can be helpful, CCL recommends women-only programs for women in STEM careers because they allow participants to tackle issues they encounter in the workplace that might otherwise cause them to drop out. Gender-specific sessions also can give women a safe place to share their challenges and learn from the experiences of others who are like them.

CCL research has found that a women-only training approach can produce an almost immediate impact. We surveyed technical women who work in a broad range of industries across more than 20 companies. Each was part of a pilot leadership development program tailored especially for women in STEM careers. Participants learned how to become better communicators, build strategic networks, create their own personal brand, and become their own best advocate for new opportunities and stretch assignments. 

Six months after their training ended, we asked women about the changes that occurred once they returned to the workplace. The results:

  • 94 percent made positive changes to their leadership behavior.
  • 92 percent felt better equipped to advance in their career.
  • 86 percent felt they were achieving better results as a leader.
  • 79 percent took steps to improve their visibility within their organization.
  • 37 percent received a promotion. 

Many also said they’ve increased their responsibilities, moved to a new job that was equivalent to a promotion, or made a lateral move to broaden their experience.

Our research found that in addition to women-only leadership development programs, employers can support STEM women by providing on-the-job learning experiences, and promoting strategies that help women build strategic networks, navigate a male-dominated culture, and become their own advocate.

Challenging Assignments

Multiple studies show that challenging assignments are the leading source of important learning experiences. However, according to research by Catalyst, men get more of the kinds of assignments that can help them advance in their careers than their female colleagues.

Organizations can help by making challenging assignments for women in STEM roles a part of the organizational culture and talent management initiatives by requiring that plans and practices for development and performance management include on-the-job experiences. Developmental opportunities can include temporary projects, task force membership, rotational assignments, or job restructuring to broaden roles and responsibilities. Maximize learning from these assignments by focusing on regular feedback, support, and recognition.

High-performing leaders also rely on the right networks and relationships to help them access information, gain new opportunities, and earn promotions. However, many women, especially in STEM fields, have a hard time building networks. They also often lack mentors, female role models, and senior-level sponsors. CCL research shows these types of relationships result in a five-times increased likelihood of promotion and an improvement in retention, putting women who don’t have them at a disadvantage. 

To support developing networks for STEM women, organizations can establish mentoring and sponsorship initiatives and incentivize participation by leveraging the organization’s rewards program. Encourage the development of learning communities that give technical women the opportunity to network, develop new skills, and share their experiences with others, and encourage women to seek opportunities to build their visibility and confidence, such as speaking at and participating in industry events. 

Be Proactive

Like all of your most important business assets, ensuring the success of STEM women at your organization will take time and proactive efforts. Women-only development programs are one key tool you can use to cultivate women leaders in STEM careers. Another is making individual learning and growth for STEM women an integral part of your performance management plans and practices, and measuring outcomes so you can document the impact you are having on advancement and fine-tune your program to produce optimal results.

And remember: When women get what they need, the payoff is better business outcomes.

Patty Burke is an innovation and venture catalyst with the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL). She is responsible for identifying, validating, and commercializing innovative product and service opportunities. She recently helped to design and launch Advancing Technical Women, a new CCL leadership program for women in tech careers.  

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