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Women Engineers: Good News in a Bad News Cycle

Maybe we are finally hitting bottom in gender parity for women engineers 25 years after companies started investing in diversity and inclusion.
Engineer’s Blog Post Sparks Uber To Investigate Sexual Harassment

By Beth Michaels, president of Primer Michaels

February 28, 2017

Women Engineers:  Good News In A Bad News Cycle
Beth Michaels

Susan Fowler did a great service by writing about her nightmarish tenure as an Uber engineer. Maybe, just maybe, we are finally hitting bottom in the gender parity department. After all, it’s only been 25 years since companies started investing in diversity and inclusion.

Ms. Fowler illuminates the impact of values-based leadership. Normally we’d refer to values-based leadership as a good thing. What’s good in this case is the demonstration that company culture, the beliefs and behaviors endorsed by leaders, can be positive and negative, judged by the degree of fit with our personal values. While I chose to delete my Uber app, others may decide that Uber’s values are just right for them.

Regarding STEM cultures, women have been voting with their feet for years. While engineering companies report strong headway on their female hiring goals, female retention continues to suffer. Attrition is particularly acute at the five to seven year mark, just when companies start investing in their future leaders.

For much deeper potential impact, we have better news about the formation of a senior leadership coalition committed to (finally) getting serious about their gender parity goals.

This coalition was announced shortly after McKinsey released its 2016 global study on women in the workplace. The report highlights the lack of leadership accountability as a root cause for the chronic sluggishness in female inclusion:

we are falling short in translating top-level commitment into a truly inclusive work environment. Even when top executives say the right things, employees don’t think they have a plan for making progress toward gender equality, don’t see those words backed up with action, don’t feel confident calling out gender bias when they see it, and don’t think frontline managers have gotten the message. Only 45 percent of employees, for example, think their companies are doing what it takes to improve diversity outcomes. And even though more than 70 percent of companies say they are committed to diversity, less than a third of their workers see senior leaders held accountable for improving gender outcomes. 

The McKinsey study was released after the Society of Women Engineer’s (SWE) national gender culture study, which was the first to pull senior leader accountability forward as the root cause of female attrition in STEM. With more than 3200 male and female U.S. based engineers reporting, SWE’s study tells the story of deeply frustrated female leaders who highly value accountability as a personal and desired value and find it missing from their daily experiences. In its place, they report resource constraints, bureaucracy and short-term focus interfering with quality standards and goal-focus.

After 25 years, we have all the research and the models we need to make significant progress. With the Paradigm for Parity Coalition, a group of senior executives are stepping up. They are taking a leadership stand on Diversity and Inclusion 101: Gender. Finally, we see the beginnings of the leadership will.

Share the news of the coalition with your leaders. Ask them to account for and communicate about their inclusion goals. Progress – or the lack of – is on their watch.