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Women in STEM: How to attract and retain the really-hard-to-hire

By Jorgena Branko on 08/03/2022

Did you know: Despite decades of work to increase women’s participation in STEM careers, the numbers are still deeply concerning? Recent research from Pew Charitable Trust in the US shows that although women make up roughly half of all STEM workers overall, participation is clustered heavily in healthcare and life sciences jobs. In engineering and computer science, the share of women is 25% or less. Even worse, the share of women in these subgroups has remained relatively flat, if not decreased, over 30 years. And this isn’t just a US problem; in the UK, the picture is not any better. According to the Office for National Statistics Labour Force Survey data, women made up 24% of the UK STEM workforce in 2019.  

Given these facts and in honor of Women’s History Month, we’re going to take a quick dive into Universum’s research about what women want for their careers – this based on a survey of over 330,000 students and recent graduates across 36 countries. These insights are critical for employers who want to hire women into STEM roles. What motivates women? What industries do they seek out? And what qualities matter most in a future employer?  

1. Women are future-focused in their careers 

The Universum research shows women who are in university or recent graduates care most about professional training/development and high future earnings when considering a potential employer – both future-focused factors, but to be fair, these are also priorities for men. Where women and men differ is in their desire for a competitive base salary. For women, this factor ranks #11, compared to #4 for men. And in North America, a competitive base salary ranks #20 for women, compared to #6 for men!  

What does it mean that women give so much less priority to a competitive base salary when compared to men? While a competitive base salary may be important to women, other factors weigh more heavily, including work-life balance and feeling respected at work.  

What does it mean for employers?  

  • Ensure your company offers robust training and development opportunities – particularly leadership development programs for women as they advance in their careers. And make it a point to highlight these in college recruiting settings.  
  • Be vigilant about the finding that women underemphasize base salary compared to men. Ensure this does not lead to women negotiating lower salaries than men for a similar position.  

2. Women seek respect and integrity at work 

Women in STEM fields are much more likely than men in STEM to value an employer’s respect for its people (+5 points above men) as well as high ethical standards (+17 points above men). In North America, high ethical standards ranks #2 among women in STEM. “We often see interesting outliers in our employer preference data when analyzing by country and gender,” says Larissa Hällefors, global commercial product manager Universum. “It’s an important reminder that talent leaders need to be careful not to over-rely on global averages when crafting their EVPs and messaging.” 

What does it mean for employers?  

  • Does your employer value proposition address respect and ethics? How do these values show up in your company’s culture? If you want to recruit more women into hard-to-hire STEM roles, take a close look at how your company demonstrates these values in day-to-day work life, and how your company messages these during recruiting.  

3. Women prioritize work-life balance more so than men – even at the beginning of their careers 

Women are more likely to prioritize work-life balance and flexible work compared to men – and the importance of these two factors is relatively consistent across regions. Keep in mind that the Universum survey polls men and women still in university or recently graduated, so the pressures of raising families is not yet an issue in most cases.  

What does it mean for employers?  

  • Despite women prioritizing work-life balance and flexible work, employers should not view these as “women’s issues.” LiveScience reviewed the extensive research of Kristen Shockley, a psychologist at the University of Georgia. Her meta-analysis looked at the conflicts between work and family, and found a negligible difference between men and women. Shockley says that pigeon-holing work-life balance as a women’s issue is problematic for both men and women: “Employers may become more prone to thinking that women aren’t committed to work and thus may hesitate to offer them jobs or promotions. Meanwhile, men could get shoehorned into a workaholic role they don’t relish.” 

4. Women are not all alike 

When we look at the data by region, we see subtle differences in what women seek out from employers. A friendly work environment is a top priority for women in the APAC countries, but ranks just #13 for women in Latin America. And references for a future career ranks #2 for women in Latin America, but #14 for women in the US and Canada.  

What does it mean for employers?  

  • When attracting women to STEM roles, it’s critical to take a local approach to talent attraction. Your EVP can (and should) be localized when local conditions require it. For example, the large majority of your EVP (say 80 – 90%) will be values that are held in common across all regions – priorities that are part of your company’s DNA. But 10 to 20% can be localized to country-level values that are distinctly different, such as the need for women in APAC countries for a “friendly work environment.” .  


5. Women STEM graduates not seeking out jobs in tech industry at same pace as men 

For university students and recent graduates in STEM fields, it’s a bit of a no-brainer that many will choose careers in the tech industry – but women choose tech much less often than men do. Women gravitate more to pharma and biotech, and are underrepresented in tech by as much as 13 points. This is a major headwind for tech companies seeking to increase the ratio of women in tech and engineering jobs.  

Mary Ellen Kassotakis, executive director of Oracle Women’s Leadership program, explains, “We know that technology is the only STEM discipline where the participation of women has declined in the past 20 years and therefore women remain significantly underrepresented in the corporate pipeline.”  

What does it mean for employers?  

  • To hire more women, companies must invest heavily in niche development areas like women’s leadership development. “Ensuring that women are working and leading in technology is not just a matter of fairness and ethics, it’s imperative for good business,” says Kassotakis. 

About Universum  

Universum, part of Totaljobs Group in the UK and StepStone Group globally is a thought leader in Employer Branding. With over 30 years of valuable experience in the field of employer branding, we have established ourselves in 60 markets globally, and our diverse workforce is physically present in 20 countries. We are uniquely positioned through our talent surveys to deliver key insights to recruiters about what future talent is looking for in a company. Our data-led, human and meaningful output has attracted more than 1,700 clients, including many Fortune 500 companies, as well as global media partners that publish our annual rankings and trend reports. Find out more at www.universumglobal.com.  

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