Women in STEM
April 6, 2021

Creating a Brighter Future for Women in STEM

The word “diversity” is pervasive, especially when it comes to the workplace, but do we fully understand its importance? Yes, diversity is about everyone getting their fair shot – but it’s also a smart business decision. When the talent pool is larger and more diverse, everyone brings unique perspectives and experience to the table. Better solutions are found. Breakthroughs are achieved. Innovation happens. Everyone wins.

The importance of diversity was illustrated clearly for me while working on a group exercise for my MBA. We were “stranded” in the arctic with a list of 20 items to prioritize in order to survive. First, we did the exercise on our own. Then, we repeated the exercise with a group of people with similar genders and ethnicities. In the third round, we completed the same task with a more diverse group. The results spoke for themselves: the more diverse the group, the better the outcome and the much greater chance of survival. Although the example is anecdotal, research supports the results. Companies that are gender, ethnically and culturally diverse are more likely to financially outperform their industry peers.

Anyone working in STEM knows we have a diversity problem, with women particularly underrepresented. According to Statistics Canada, women made up only 34% of STEM bachelor’s degree holders in 2016, and only 23% of science and technology workers among Canadians aged 25 to 64. What amazing ideas, breakthroughs and collaborative opportunities have we missed out on as a result? Conversely, since STEM jobs are at the forefront of innovation with some of the highest salaries, what fulfilling careers have women been missing out on?

This is an area I spend a lot of time thinking about, and, in light of International Women’s Day, I hosted a virtual roundtable for the women I work with at Cognitive Systems. I wanted to get their perspectives as women working in tech and kick off an important conversation that should be an ongoing one – not just something we focus on once a year. We need to hear both the good and the bad, and openly discuss our concerns and experiences, so that we can work together to make things better.

Still Room for Improvement

In our discussion, we talked about representation in school, in recruitment and in the workplace. We agreed that progress has been made in education, with more women than ever pursuing degrees in STEM. Unfortunately, we aren’t yet seeing this translate at the same pace into the working world.

One colleague mentioned an important disconnect, observing that women often only apply for a role if they meet 100% of the job requirements, whereas men are less hesitant to apply even if they meet only some of the criteria. In my experience working in tech and reviewing resumes, I’ve found support for this theory. The smaller number of women applicants tend to meet all job requirements. Of course, qualified men apply as well, but there are a lot more who don’t tick every box.

How can we address this in recruitment, so that more women are encouraged to apply? For starters, we can be more deliberate in the way we word job descriptions and promote flexibility in role requirements to encourage a diverse range of applicants. Hiring for specific skills is certainly important, but hiring someone who is motivated to learn and is a good cultural fit is equally important for success.

Another solution is to make best use of co-op programs. At Cognitive, we provide our co-ops with challenging and meaningful work that advances our corporate goals. During our roundtable, one of our students revealed that Cognitive had exceeded her expectations with respect to how she would be treated and the importance of the work she would do. It was disheartening to hear that she had low expectations, but I’m glad we were able to deliver more. By encouraging more young women to apply for co-op roles and leveraging their strengths, we hope they will be excited to continue a career in STEM.

Something else to think about is that not all positions in our industry need to embody traditional ideas of what a “tech job” should be. A company cannot operate solely based on the hard skills of engineering. Developing an idea, product or service is only one part of the equation – many other roles make important contributions that are essential to organizational success. Shining a brighter light on these roles and the soft skills required to perform them should encourage greater diversity in applicants, and not just women.

What do women love about working in STEM?

By increasing diversity in STEM, we are ultimately driving greater success for everyone, and there are many reasons for women to join these industries. My colleagues who participated in the roundtable had some important takeaways to share:

“I like that my work contributes to new ideas that have never been done before. I also like that I’m constantly learning, especially because the tech field is always improving and innovating.” – Safa

“I like being able to directly contribute to innovation and break new ground. Coming up with solutions to make the world a better and easier place for people makes working in tech feel very meaningful.” – Sarmina

“One of the biggest appeals that people might not think of is the creativity involved, every day presents a new challenge and a new puzzle to solve. I am constantly learning, building upon what I know and forced to use my knowledge to solve new problems that have never been tackled before.” – Emilie

“I love that technology is the cross-road between logical and creative. Knowing how something functions and its limitations and then challenging those to create new and exciting things.” – Katie

A few key pieces of advice for women interested in STEM also emerged from our discussion:

  • Don’t be afraid to fail because it’s just part of the process. Fall down, make mistakes, and move forward unapologetically.
  • There is nothing wrong with asking for help.
  • Look for guidance from other successful women in STEM and don’t be afraid to forge your own path.
  • You don’t necessarily need to be an engineer. There are lots of ways to work in STEM outside of traditional “tech” roles.

For increased diversity and inclusion in the STEM workforce, there’s work to be done. Supporting meaningful co-op placements and ensuring hiring practices encourage applicants with diverse backgrounds are small steps we can take today to ensure even more breakthroughs in our future.

I’ll leave you with one quote from our roundtable that really stood out for me:

“I always had a curiosity about the world around me and was inspired by the endless possibilities that STEM offers. With the tools you develop working in STEM you can do anything. Studying STEM means learning how to learn, how to break down a problem, challenge your own assumptions and think outside of the box. Everything you learn just spawns more questions and feeds the hunger within you to keep learning.” – Emilie