Women in STEM jobs boost business

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Colorado Springs ranks among the nation’s 25 best cities for graduates with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) degrees, but across the state women are much less likely than men to work in STEM careers, according to Lauren Casteel, Women’s Foundation of Colorado president and CEO.

WFCO hosted a community discussion May 25 on gender equity and empowering women in STEM careers.

The event at Catalyst Campus shared results from WFCO’s recent research report, “Gender Equity in Colorado’s STEM Industries: The Case for Focused Workforce Investment.”

A panel discussion among industry and government leaders included Army veteran, engineer and Sigma Metals CEO Katherine Gaulke; RTA Architects Principal Stuart Coppedge; Pikes Peak Workforce Center Director of Business Relations and Employment Development Dana Barton; and WFCO Vice President of Programs Louise Myrland.

Presenting WFCO’s latest research, Myrland noted that while women are nearly half the overall workforce in Colorado, they make up less than one-third of the state’s STEM workforce.

“This is talent going untapped, and we can fix that,” she said.

Myrland said research had borne out the “incredible ways companies can benefit with more inclusive teams.”

She noted that companies in the top 20 percent for gender diversity are more competitive than their peers in the sector. Companies with more inclusive teams are generally recognized as more ethical, have higher levels of customer satisfaction, are seen as more innovative and creative, secure more patents, and have been proven to display better problem-solving abilities.

Companies with more diverse teams also enjoy a more stable workforce, with lower turnover and associated hiring costs.

Despite these benefits, women continue to be underrepresented in STEM fields, Myrland said.

“Today we are focused on how to support women in the STEM workforce and how to support companies in engaging women more effectively. It really begins with an understanding of what sorts of barriers women are currently facing when they are employed in the STEM fields,” she said.

“Not only do women report high levels of having to consistently and repeatedly prove their competence … they have to walk a really fine line between being perceived as too feminine to be credible, or too masculine to be likable.

“They are facing assumptions that other people make about them without ever consulting them: about diminishing levels of commitment to the company, to the role, to success for the team overall, when they just happen to be of childbearing years.”

Myrland said many gender equity problems in STEM fields begin with unconscious or implicit biases that “translate into behaviors… that signal to women, ‘You don’t have a place here.’”

She highlighted the National Center for Women in Information Technology’s model for strategic change as a way for employers to address internal company culture and benefit from greater gender inclusivity.

“This change framework helps to break down every layer of the persistent systems that tend to push women out of STEM, and how to change them for a lasting impact,” Myrland said.

The NCWIT model focuses on establishing institutional accountability and support from top leadership; educating managers and improving managerial relationships; and building ongoing data collection and transparency.

The panel discussed the challenges of attracting  women for local STEM professions and retaining them, how the Colorado Springs business community can promote gender equity and how companies benefit from employing a greater percentage of women in STEM positions.

Gaulke, who spent 12 years as an active duty engineer in the U.S. Air Force before buying Sigma Metals with her husband, said she had faced “both implicit and direct bias” in her career. “Too many of my peers have left the STEM career field, and my heart lies now in career workforce development mentoring,” she said.

Gaulke said retaining women in STEM careers is difficult.

“Why do people mass-exit STEM? I think frankly women get tired of putting up with it. … Women will only keep banging their head against the wall so many times,” she said. “They are ready to make changes — what we need is a partnership to help them make progress.”

Gaulke said employers need to have discussions with each of their employees because “women function and operate differently, just like men do. So it’s very important that you listen to your workforce and get to know them individually and find out what works best for them.”

Barton said mentoring drives retention and opens conversation on important issues, creating opportunities for women to ask questions “that you wouldn’t be comfortable asking in a human resources situation or to your boss.”

Coppedge said higher percentages of women in STEM positions would boost the city’s reputation and create a better talent pool.

But Colorado Springs faces greater challenges in attracting and retaining talented women in STEM positions, he said.

“One of the biggest challenges is real or perceived lack of parallel opportunities, or opportunity density. If I come to Colorado Springs as a woman … if the job with RTA Architects doesn’t work out, where else can I go?” he said.

“There’s not a real broad spectrum of other jobs that are similar, so the risk is higher for somebody to come here.

“Another big issue, I think, is they have such a depressed wage scale across the board. I remember coming here in 1986 and Ron Briggs, who hired me… literally took me out in the middle of the street, pointed at Pikes Peak and said, ‘That’s $3 an hour’ — and that was an entry-level position right out of college in 1986.

“He said, ‘If it’s not worth it, don’t come here.’ So really the recruiting pool is much smaller to get people to come here, because they have to really want the lifestyle you get in Colorado Springs.”

The report is online at wfco.org/STEM