How to close the gender gap in STEM

This year’s International Women’s Day urged us all to “Embrace Equity,” an inspiring call to action in a world where so many women still don’t enjoy basic rights or opportunities. At Virtusa, where problem-solving is in our DNA, we think it’s important to push ourselves further and actually engineer equity. From climate change to clean water, or health care to the wealth gap, the world faces complex challenges that can only be solved through innovative thinking and creative solutions. But the yawning gender gap in engineering, scientific, and technical fields means that we are fighting these battles with one arm tied behind our back. Despite making up 50% of the population, women account for just 27% of technology workers in the United States. Women are less likely to study STEM subjects in school, and if they do pursue a STEM-related career, they end up making less money than their male counterparts and are less likely to attain leadership roles.

If we want to build a better, equitable, and more prosperous future, we can’t leave so much talent on the table. But women can only achieve equity in STEM fields if we apply the same rigor to solving gender equity that we apply to other engineering problems. The engineering mindset is an iterative and collaborative approach to solving complex problems. Broadly, it involves identifying the problem, brainstorming different ideas, prototyping and testing solutions, and then measuring results and iterating. Having identified the problem of gender equity in tech-related fields, human resources teams and IT organizations can embrace the engineering mindset to close that gap.

The freedom to try new things

Curiosity and creativity are critical when confronted with new challenges. A variety of viewpoints can expand the range of possibilities available. You never know where an intriguing solution will come from when teams have the freedom to experiment. At Virtusa, some of our locations in the UK and India developed programs to employ women who have taken a break in their careers. They encourage such women to apply for open positions and then offer mentoring to help them return to the workforce. These efforts have been promising and we are considering expanding these programs to other regions.

This also underscores the importance of actively bringing opportunities to underserved populations rather them expecting them to seek you out. Open up overlooked talent pipelines by offering training or jobs through schools or community organizations like Girls Who Code. Many companies have created centers of excellence in universities to help train students in technology areas that matter to them. Part of their mission should be to cultivate female talent and demonstrate that there are clearly differentiated career paths for them.

Building technology solutions that advance equity

Engineering equity in tech will also require that engineers themselves build the solutions. In the run-up to International Women’s Day, Virtusa hosted a global Engineering Equity Hackathon. The event provided an opportunity for female STEM students around the world to build technology solutions that advance equity. The response was incredible – 65,000 bright and motivated participants stepped up in hopes of making a difference. Winners will be announced soon, but the passion of this next generation of engineers was overwhelming and inspiring.

However, in the long term, it’s not enough to just attract female candidates – they must have the resources and environment to help them grow and be successful. Many organizations have mentorship programs that can be expanded into universities and technical training institutes to reach women earlier. They can also help female employees get technology certifications and make sure they are considered for promotions and new roles. Last year, Virtusa launched a new leadership program to help prepare women for senior roles like director and vice president. These policies can help ensure that more and more women move up the ranks into leadership positions.

Measurement and feedback

Engineering doesn’t stop when a solution is built. You need to constantly measure its effectiveness against clearly defined metrics of success. Be agile and to use feedback to make improvements as you go. When it comes to gender equity, first and foremost, listen to your women leaders and employees. Internal surveys will give you valuable snapshots of employee perceptions and help identify priorities. In addition, use interviews during the hiring process to learn about candidate expectations and what is happening in other organizations. Finally, engage external partners to bring in outside perspectives.

Listening to our employees led Virtusa to buck the return-to-office trend. Even as many companies order workers back to the office a certain number of days a week, we have empowered our employees to make their own decisions wherever possible. While not conceived specifically as a gender equity policy, this flexible approach especially benefits female employees who disproportionately bear other family duties like caregiving. In addition, the hybrid work environment has boosted productivity and helped us increase retention.

The gender gap in STEM fields is just one example of how much work there is to be done to achieve true equity. By engineering equity, can unleash the creativity and ingenuity of women to help solve our biggest challenges, creating a more just and prosperous future for all.

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