STEM Jobs for Women: Beware of Unique Career Challenges

May 8, 2013

Women in Science
Women in STEM careers
……………Increasing the presence of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) careers has grabbed America’s attention recently. The release of a 2011 government study, Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation, highlights the disproportion of men to women in STEM roles and demonstrates the advantages that women in STEM careers achieve. Women earn an average 33% more if they work in STEM jobs yet for the last decade they have held less than 25% of these jobs.
As a result of growing awareness about the disparity, school systems, policy makers, business owners and even the White House has developed initiatives to increase STEM job participation by women. If their efforts begin to bear fruit in the next several years, we’ll have made progress toward solving one significant gender issue; however, there may be hidden challenges for the women entering the STEM industries.

New professionals should realize that advancement to the top executive levels in any field, STEM or otherwise, requires “line” or profit and loss (P&L) experience. In Fortune 500 companies, only one in 10 women hold P&L jobs and only four percent of those companies are run by women. There are many factors contributing to the lack of women CEO’s, but we know that for both Board and C-suite representation, P&L experience is critical. Achieving this experience might be trickier for STEM women, however. Companies in the science, technology, engineering and math industries often have large Research and Development cost centers, not attached to revenue streams. Any woman who doesn’t advance out of those cost centers into positions where they are responsible for revenues as well as costs, won’t gain that P&L experience. Of course this situation can occur to professionals in any industry but innovative science, engineering and computing related companies tend to have cost centers that are especially vital to the business of the company. Therefore, looking to leave or advance out of those areas, might seem career limiting at first. Women will need to be particularly aware that moving out of what seems like a hot area will be necessary to gain the skills needed to advance to senior positions at their companies.

Secondly, and ironically, the higher pay of STEM jobs could provide a disincentive for women to jump out of the middle level, which has been the stagnation point historically for women in corporations, and into the executive level. Women advance as fast as men until they reach middle management and then structural roadblocks, including gender inequities and changing life/work priorities, cause them to drop out or to not continue advancing. In some of the success stories where women have continued on to executive management, they were often the primary/sole bread winners for their family and had a monetary incentive to get there. So the higher salary earned by female STEM professionals may possibly contribute to middle management stickiness for women. Similarly, higher earning entry level women may be less inclined to quit their jobs to earn advanced degrees that would ultimately aid their career advancement.

Hopefully, this country will make significant advances to shepherd women into STEM careers. And if it does, women should be aware that unique characteristics of the industry may require them to be a little savvier about fulfilling their goals of advancement.