International Women’s Day 2023 encourages us to #EmbraceEquity. One powerful way we can do this is by creating clear pathways and inclusive workplaces for women in STEM careers. Brunel Australasia’s Business Manager of Life Sciences Deirdre Perkins draws on three decades of experience working in STEM and STEM recruitment to offer valuable advice on what recruiters can do to help more women thrive in STEM careers.
The scales are shifting…slowly
I’ve worked in STEM and STEM recruitment for almost 35 years. Throughout that time, I have certainly seen favourable changes for women in the STEM environment; however, we still have a long way to go in achieving gender equality.
Throughout my career, I have seen increased representation of women in STEM roles in the workplace, especially in senior leadership roles. I’ve also seen improvements in flexibility in the workplace, and in polices that support working mums such as paid parental leave.
When I started out as a research chemist in a global pharmaceutical company, I was excited by the opportunity to work on cutting-edge research and the development of new drugs. I was surrounded by a mixture of males and females working on benches, all wearing white coats. I reported to a male laboratory manager, who reported to a male technical director, who reported to a male operations manager, who reported to a male vice president. That was how it was. There were some very experienced and talented females working beside me, but there certainly weren’t any females in supervisory roles, let alone managerial roles.
Today I celebrate our progress; it has taken a lot of effort from both females and males to get to where we are. But we’re still not where we should be. Globally, women hold only two in every 10 science, engineering and information and communication technology jobs. It’s important to continue the efforts to address gender bias, promote diversity and inclusion and support women in STEM.
Tips for recruiting and retaining more women in STEM
Working in STEM recruitment, I feel very lucky to be in a role that allows me to influence some of these changes on a daily basis. Based on my years in the industry dealing with countless recruiters, employers and candidates, here are some practical tips I can offer that will help remove barriers for women entering – and remaining – in STEM careers.
- Address gender bias with clients. When talking to clients and taking job orders, I’ve noticed there is still a tendency to use words that show a bias towards male candidates, particularly in engineering roles. For example, a client will say: “he needs to have five years’ experience” or “he will need to fit in with the guys.” As a recruiter, it’s important to talk this through with your client and set an expectation that you will be presenting the best candidates for the role – regardless of gender. I have always found that clients respect this and often are unaware of the bias and the implications of what they are saying.
- Create a level playing field in interviews. During the interview process, be mindful of language and avoid gender-based assumptions, such as asking a female if she has children and who will look after them. Each candidate should be evaluated based on their skills, experience, and qualifications, rather than their gender.
- Acknowledge the male/female self-promotion discrepancy. I often see that females are less likely to self-promote their skills. I spend a lot of time encouraging females to apply for roles that they are perfectly capable of taking on. I have definitely seen a higher level of self-doubt in females than in male candidates, and a greater fear of failure. The interview process is a great opportunity to support and encourage your female candidates and to help them identify some of their skills that they take for granted.
- Support female candidates to negotiate salary. I have observed that female candidates in general dislike talking about salary and are not as comfortable as their male counterparts about negotiating salary packages. I have seen too many female candidates accept salaries that are not fair and equitable with their male counterparts, so I now spend a lot to time with both my clients and candidates talking through what is fair and what is equitable. I generally undertake the salary negotiations for all my candidates, which allows me to ask the client what other people in the same role are being paid regardless of gender, which removes any bias.
- Encourage female candidates to find a female mentor. I encourage a lot of my female candidates to look for a female mentor in their workplace – someone who is successful and perhaps further along on the path they aspire to take. Having a female mentor will help women to navigate the workplace, providing a valuable source of support and guidance, as well as a network of contacts and resources.
- Balance gender-coded language in job advertisements. Without realising it, we all use language that is subtly gender coded. Society has certain expectations of what men and women are like, and how they differ, and this seeps into the language we use. Think about ‘bossy’ and ‘feisty’: we almost never use these words to describe men. This linguistic gender-coding shows up in job advertisements, and research has shown that it puts women off applying for jobs that are advertised with predominantly masculine-coded language. Is your job advertisement filled with masculine-coded words (i.e. active, adventurous, ambitious, challenging, driven, superior) or feminine-coded words (i.e. cooperative, honest, interpersonal, polite, supportive)? Strive for balance.
No matter what role you are in or what gender you identify as, I encourage you to take every opportunity you can to foster inclusive working environments, encourage diversity in leadership, and advocate for change.
About the author
A scientist-by-training, Deirdre spent the early part of her career working in the global pharmaceutical industry in Ireland and Australia before transitioning into Life Sciences recruitment. She has successfully delivered talent solutions for laboratory, regulatory, clinical, business development, environmental and research divisions for over 30 years.