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Five Steps Men Can Take Today to Address the Lack of Women in STEM

01/05/2016 22:27

In tackling diversity in STEM, it's men who need the confidence boost

This month sees the celebration of Girls in ICT Day on 28 April - the theme of which is "expanding horizons and changing attitudes".

There are a number of interventions which are key to tackling the underrepresentation of women in STEM that days such as this seek to highlight.

Of these, boosting girls' confidence is often mentioned . There is no question that building a career in STEM, which remains male dominated, is intimidating. We need to ensure that girls have the self-confidence to be able to make that leap.

Time to get controversial.

However, we also need to consider another group whose confidence is perhaps in even greater need of a boost - men. When it comes to the changes in attitude Girls in ICT Day seeks to encourage, re-assessing how much importance we place on men's confidence is an important place to start.

In particular, men in industry need to have the confidence to break free of the habitual biases which prevent the diverse workforce and enabling workplace that everyone in STEM deserves being created. Confidence is needed for men to feel comfortable with making a difference in their own sphere of influence without fear of offending others in the process, 'lowering the bar' or feeling isolated and under threat. This lesson has been learnt the hard way by men such as American technology entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa, who was publicly hounded for speaking out against Silicon Valley's frat boy culture.

Why should men publicly advocate for more women in STEM?

Men's voices are needed to be part of the chorus which inspires the next generation of women in STEM; allowing young women to know that they are needed and welcomed by a diversity of people in the industry - not just women. Men remain in the majority in STEM workplaces, and are therefore able to set and influence the tone in their work environments. It is crucial that they set good examples of inclusive practice and not be bystanders to sexism - blatant or subtle. Crucially, men need to hear this from fellow men, as much as from female leaders.

When breaking down the influences which may nudge a girl towards exploring a STEM career, male voices and perspectives rank fairly high. Fathers, brothers, uncles, teachers and men across industry play a role in guiding the educational choices of young women. To have men absent from efforts to encourage more girls into STEM is to lose a vital tool in addressing this challenge.

If the conversation about the need to inspire more girls into STEM misses the voices of men, it risks missing the point and not having the desired impact on girls' career choices.

Making men's voices heard

Mindful of this, Stemettes seeks to connect the girls we work with to inspiring men in STEM as well as women. For example, there is always a male panellist at our panel events. We recognise that girls will relate to people for different reasons, and so want to expose them to as diverse a range of inspiring people in STEM as possible.

Similarly, this International Women's Day, we decided to take our own advice. Instead of profiling women doing amazing work in STEM, we instead chose to feature men who are passionate about tackling gender inequality in the industry.

In particular, we asked them why they wanted to inspire more girls in STEM, and why they would encourage other men to do the same.

Men on why they support the Stemettes - for International Women's Day 2016

For senior software engineer Nigel Stirzaker, it was the promise of a brighter future for his daughter and her peers which motivated him: "I want my daughter and her generation to create a new future, not just for herself, but for everyone".

Huffington Post blogger, strategist and speaker Jay Shetty's response was similarly-forward-looking. "I'm passionate about inspiring young women into STEM because it promises not just a range of exciting opportunities for them, but also a better, more dynamic future for us all."

If the response these and other quotes received on social media is anything to go by, the message is clear. In the same way in which we tackle the gender stereotypes which discourage women from entering STEM, we need to address those which prevent men from meaningfully working towards a more diverse workforce.

Want to promote diversity in STEM? Here's what you can do today.

Tackling fear or increasing confidence can be done in many ways. Albert Bandura cured patients with snake phobias using guided mastery. Showing them pictures of a snake, then exposing them to snakes from a safe distance, were the beginning steps in allowing them to live a life free of snake fear.

Similarly, giving men the confidence to make their environments inclusive requires taking practical steps.

5 actions anyone (male or female) in the industry can take today to address the lack of women in STEM:

  1. Actively seek out people different to you at events, and at work, and engage with them. They have great perspectives and you can always learn from them. This means not just approaching people like you during networking sessions. It means making sure you listen to the voices of all in the committees you're a part of. It means striking up conversations with unique people in the rooms you enter.
  2. Invite people different to you to the table in meetings, external engagements and to do business. They have great ideas, and you'll be ahead of the curve in discovering the next big idea. If your colleagues and partners run non-diverse events, meetings or rounds, challenge them. It's not only incredibly backward, it also makes poor business sense - a diversity of views means more successful outcomes.
  3. In meetings, when told that a woman is a leader or subject matter expert, don't look to her male colleagues for advice or interactions. Ask her questions directly, make direct eye contact and listen when she speaks. The same goes for anyone you might come across in your meetings.
  4. Sometimes the men in your network can benefit from knowing women you've met and vice versa. Don't just introduce the women in your network to women you meet.
  5. Never, ever let yourself become lazy and habitual in your decision making processes. As inclusion and equality become the norm, failing to adapt promises to send your career the way of the Kodak. Don't allow yourself to become outdated or irrelevant with poor decisions and a non-diverse network.

As long as men in STEM continue to unconsciously perpetuate poor workplace habits through lack of confidence we'll have a big problem on our hands. A diverse workforce is maintained by a combination of retention, attraction and hiring of diverse talent. Improving men's willingness and ability to challenge these norms, and redefine the status quo, will help to ensure that we have a comprehensive solution.

Boosting the confidence of women in tech, both existing and aspiring, is a critical intervention. But our efforts to do so will continue to be undermined until we boost men's too.

This column was co-authored by Jo Cruse, Stemettes' Communications Lead.

For more information on Stemettes, visit our website, and follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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