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Addressing the Science Gender Gap

Addressing the Science Gender Gap

What a metrics-driven approach can do for female career progression

Louise Madden

The diversity of roles available in the science arena is broader now than ever before, with more women taking on management roles in STEM, including an increasing number in senior and board positions. That said, in a pre-pandemic report on women in science, UNESCO reinforces that this is still far from being the norm, with women employed in scientific R&D across the world accounting for less than one-third of the workforce, with a global average of 29.3 percent. Although progress is being made, it is clear there is still much work to be done to reduce this gender gap.

Addressing this gap will require a metrics-based approach from driven and ambitious company leadership. The approach should focus on improved recruitment and development strategies that apply metrics and guidance to help remove barriers and empower women into science careers. 

Find the broadest mix of candidates

To attract the best candidates, recruitment strategies must evolve in line with current networking practices. 

To bring in more female applicants for a diverse, enriched workforce, a different and more proactive approach to advertising must be taken to ensure job opportunities are displayed in places where women will see and engage with them. Social media is an effective platform for this, with its potential for demographic targeting allowing gender, location, age, and interests all to be factored. 

The power of social media engagement is not always recognized. Senior and management teams, and especially women in these roles, should never miss the chance to like, share, and comment on recruitment posts. By amplifying across their own networks, they can broaden the reach of the ad within a very targeted demographic while adding their own endorsement. The use of social media also encourages a shift away from headhunter-led recruitment who may have their own in-built bias to what science candidates “should” look like.

The real advantage of social media and online platforms are their powerful built-in analytics, which, when exploited, can be used to establish metrics around reach, audience engagements, and conversion. These metrics can be leveraged for further recruitment campaigns to better target women.

In addition to social media platforms, the use of blogs not only provides the advantage of measuring and applying metrics, but also sets out and reinforces a company’s ambitions and culture in a long form. As an example, the H.E.L blog published a piece to mark the 2021 International Day of Women and Girls in Science that showcased the career experiences of women in a range of functions and at various levels in the company. Importantly, the objective of the post was to aid women in science, and those considering science-based roles, to better navigate their career trajectory. However, it was also intended to have a broader reach to engage men, and to particularly resonate with male leaders, enabling them to understand how they can help develop the careers of their female team members, especially given that ~68 percent of H.E.L’s overall web traffic comes from men. 

The question of quotas

Always take the time to record and review gender data across every role recruited to understand your candidate mix and whether this maps against corporate targets. This data can be used to inform future recruitment campaigns and ensure progress is being made. However, setting and enforcing recruitment quotas alone will be of limited value. 

Instead, CEOs and senior management need to set and widely share diversity goals and lead by example. Senior staff should adopt an ethos of encouraging and accepting candidates for roles across all departments regardless of gender, and without preconceptions of what are the more “female-suited” roles.


Related Article: Achieving Equity for Women in STEM


The key metric to look at during recruitment is the gender mix of candidates at the initial application stage. If the gender mix isn’t close to 50/50 in your applicant pool, it’s challenging to have equal representation of male and female candidates at the later stages of recruitment. Once you achieve the correct candidate pool mix, it creates the right environment for true balance within an organization. 

If the gender mix is consistently imbalanced, then you may have to look at the potential factors causing this—are you advertising your jobs in the wrong place? Do you have a culture or reputation that might put women off from applying to work for you? Are you demonstrating career progression for women within your organization? Chances are that your candidates are considering other employers and if you’re not standing out, it’s time to ask why and fix it.

Starting with the right candidate pool mix is preferable to setting percentage targets for recruitment. Strict hiring percentages can backfire, creating an “enforced reality” where the best candidates cannot be recruited because quotas do not allow for it. Having strict quotas in place also removes the opportunity to stand back and consider the balance an organization or team needs as a whole, obscuring the qualities that would be most beneficial. For effective recruitment, people should always take precedent over metrics.

Opportunities come from greater flexibility

The lockdowns and disruptions of the last 18 months may have taken awhile to get used to, but they have created a sea change of opportunity in the area of flexible working. It is hoped this will become a new normal and strengthen the attraction of women to the sciences. 

Now that flexible- and home-working has been experienced by so many, it is time to question whether a Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ethos most benefits an organization. Instead, metrics can be built around task-focused activity across all departments. For example, finance can be left to produce management accounts by day five regardless of when/where they work, and R&D will be able to deliver complex tasks to deadlines if equipped with appropriate software that allows effective cross-team home-working. These activities should always be backed by installing systems that track progress and delivery, so management is reassured that deadlines are being met. With these attitudes in place, removing core working hours from contracts shouldn’t be too far away. This would be a major step forward in terms of giving women the power to achieve a work-life balance without compromising their career choices or progression. 

Take a long-term view on female development

Not every woman will take a career break to have children, but more often than not for those that do, the lion’s share of childcare responsibility falls to them for a host of very practical reasons. This inevitability means it shouldn’t come as a surprise when it happens, but nor should it curtail a woman’s career. The remedy is to prepare for such events and to understand at the organizational level that bringing women into leadership roles may take a little longer, or require a different approach to that of a male peer. While the goal is very much the same, how it is achieved may not be—one size will certainly not fit all.

Regardless of these challenges, the aim should always be to run a strictly meritocratic organization that values diversity and avoids conscious or unconscious bias within its recruitment and development processes. 

Annual performance reviews are a great source of crucial metrics to broaden understanding and map organizational progression. Their focus shouldn’t be restrained to the now, but take a forecast view of upcoming roles and structures, and the impact women in the business could be having as far away as 10 years from now.

Feed performance data from staff reviews into a human capital plan to create a roadmap of internal progression for all talented individuals. Make sure these “future stars” know they have been talent-spotted and talk to them about their aspirations. Find out and record their career interests and where they see themselves in five and 10 years. Also, make their line managers aware of your thought processes so they can be involved in developing roles that see career aspirations nurtured regardless of gender. The alternative—waiting for another staff member to leave and then seeking an internal replacement—is just too late. Remember, human capital plans should be a key tool used throughout career development for business continuity and not just taken up at times of expansion. 

When looking at human capital plans, ensure you evaluate the gender mix at all levels in the organization. If possible, plan to improve the gender mix of the leadership team as the company evolves, by promoting the company’s most talented female staff internally. However, measuring company metrics for promotion should go hand-in-hand with the personal experience of leadership staff when deciding team structure—you know your people, you’re in a management role because of your ability to see the future. Nothing is stopping you from building the right gender balance in your team now and using your network within the company to get the best talent to come work for you. Like hiring new employees, it’s a war for talent, and if you get a reputation for hiring well and fairly, people will want to work with you.

Champion variety

Twenty-first century science holds a broad range of roles, and there is room for everyone who wants to be here. Ways of working, policies, and procedures need to realize this and ensure that they apply to all. Having the right team in place is what matters, and metrics have a role to play in helping to discover and manage them. Ultimately, it’s worth remembering that people are the lifeblood of any organization, but metrics provide a useful methodology to find and keep the very best. Support both the organization and the employee to achieve their long-term aspirations.