Organizations today face a dilemma: Thanks to the growth in technology, they urgently need workers with backgrounds in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), but the number of qualified individuals with these skills isn’t keeping pace. What’s worse, it’s possible the growth in supply is actually being hampered by destructive workplace conditions.
That’s because women, and especially women of color, might be exiting the STEM fields thanks to pervasive gender and racial bias at work, according to a report by Joan C. Williams of the University of California, Hastings College of Law; Katherine Phillips of Columbia Business School; and Erika Hall of Emory University’s Gouizueta Business School.
“There are a lot of things that stop women from continuing on the [STEM] path, and this is one of the things that contributes to their exit,” says Phillips, the Paul Calello Professor of Leadership & Ethics and Senior Vice Dean at Columbia Business School. “I think people are going to be kind of shocked at just how prevalent [bias] is.”
Phillips, Williams, and Hall surveyed more than 550 women of all races in STEM fields and also conducted 60 in-depth interviews with women of color in STEM jobs. They found that not only did 100 percent of all women report gender bias, but women of color routinely report facing additional workplace challenges. For example, more than three-quarters of black women in STEM reported having to prove themselves over and over again, compared with 66 percent of all women. Asian-American women reported more pressure than other women to adhere to “traditionally feminine” roles and reported more pushback when they didn’t. And Latinas more often reported being pressured to perform administrative duties for their male colleagues, such as organizing meetings and filling out forms.
To intervene and combat bias, the researchers suggest a four-pronged approach: survey female STEM employees about their perception of gender bias; develop metrics to assess the situation objectively; implement systems to interrupt bias in real time; and follow up after the interruption to test efficacy.
“Being able to actually give people an outlet so that they’re not holding all this stuff in and trying to deal with it all themselves” helps create an environment that allows STEM employees to do their best work—and ultimately helps the organization retain valuable STEM talent, Phillips says. “You want to thrive and be successful,” she stresses.