Making the Workplace Culture More Welcoming to Women in STEM


If the global engineering industry is going to fill the growing talent shortage for STEM positions, it’s going to need to attract more female professionals. However, many experts say entrenched cultural attitudes are creating barriers for women in cyber security and other STEM areas.

The shortage of cyber security professionals is particularly pronounced. According to the 2017 Global Information Security Workforce Study published by (ISC)2, which surveyed almost 20,000 cyber security professionals in 170 countries, there will be 1.8 million more cyber security positions than professionals by 2022. This dearth is compounded by the gender gap. The 2018 edition of the report found that 24% of cyber security professionals were women. Furthermore, this number is actually an increase from the earlier reporting. Prior to the 2018 survey expanding participants beyond “traditional cyber security roles and sectors”, the 2017 report only showed 11% of cyber security roles being occupied by women.

How Cultural Attitudes Affect Women in STEM

A controversial 2018 study published in the journal Psychological Science attempted to explain the gender gap in STEM on supposed innate differences between men and women. Many experts say the gap can be explained by entrenched cultural attitudes, which vary throughout the world, and how those attitudes impact womens’ ability to maneuver within the field. Furthermore, outside researchers have questioned the original study’s methodology and premise, including Sarah Richardson, a Harvard University science historian.

“Cultural patterns around women’s achievement in and preferences for STEM are incredibly complex and incredibly diverse across the globe,” said Richardson. “When we looked under the surface, this appears to be a case of massaging one’s data—selecting for different countries, particular gender measures, particular women-in-STEM measures—to produce the narrative that you want to see.”

In response to the work of Richardson and others, the study received a correction at the end of 2019 in an effort to address the ambiguities and omissions.

Throughout the world, under 30% of STEM researchers are female, according to the World Economic Forum. The number varies greatly by region and country. Whereas nearly half of researchers in Central Asia are female, the percentage drops to 18.5% in South and West Asia. In Latin America and Middle East countries, the Caribbean, and Central and Eastern Europe nations, the number rises to 40%. Meanwhile, in Western Europe, North America, and sub-Saharan Africa, the number falls to 30%.

Workplace and industry culture can also impact women’s’ perceptions of the degree to which they’ll be accepted. For example, a 2016 study revealed that many women see the militant culture of the cyber security workforce—stemming from the field’s high security military roots—as unwelcoming, which may explain why some women opt out of the profession even if they are qualified to do the work.

How Discrimination and Lack of Diversity Impact Women in STEM 

Data shows that many women who experience discrimination or feel unwelcome within STEM industries will leave. For example, almost 50% of women in the United Kingdom reported discrimination in the tech industry, according to a recent survey by the tech innovation company Studio Graphene.

The survey, completed by 500 full-time tech professionals in the UK, found that 20% of these women left previous jobs due to discrimination or harassment, and that 60% believe  the problem was due to a shortage of diversity. 58% of these women felt strapped by workplace policies that didn’t support families.

How to Create a Culture that Attracts Female Professionals

According to Telle Whitney, co-founder of the Grace Hopper Conference, the world’s largest tech conference for women, there are a number of steps organizations can take to attract and retain female talent:

  1. Develop a welcoming culture for women.
  2. Set a path for women to succeed.
  3. Communicate that path to advancement.
  4. Examine your organization’s recruiting tactics.
  5. Set diversity goals.
  6. Appoint leaders to manage the decision making process behind promotions.
  7. When hiring talent, focus on the purpose of the position and go beyond the checklist of criteria that your organization thinks it’s seeking in a candidate.
  8. Don’t be discouraged by candidates who don’t precisely fit the job description.

“The companies that have really made a commitment to creating change, they look at the ways promotions are decided, because often it’s very ad hoc,” Whitney told Forbes, while noting that “consciously or unconsciously, the managers, who are primarily men, just don’t see the characteristics in women that they believe you need in order to advance.”

Preparing Women for Leadership

IEEE has partnered with Rutgers Business School to offer the IEEE | Rutgers Online Mini-MBA for Engineers. Designed specifically for organizations, this program operates entirely online. It features topics including business strategy, managing product development, finance, negotiation, managing human capital, intellectual property strategy, and transformational agility.

Designed for groups of ten or more within an organization, participants will learn how to make organizational decisions with both technical and operational considerations. After developing an understanding of how different functional groups interact to achieve overall goals, they will learn to apply their newly developed business skills to better align their technical capabilities with business strategy.

The program offers the option of a customized capstone project, completely aligned to the needs of your organization. As part of the project, you’ll receive feedback from program professors who have worked as engineering leaders themselves.

To learn more about the IEEE | Rutgers Online Mini-MBA for Engineers for your organization, contact an IEEE Account Manager today.

Introducing Children to STEM


Learn how to share your passion for engineering with young students in this live webinar on 25 March at 12pm ET. Speakers Lorena Garcia of Universidad Central and Burton Dicht of IEEE Educational Activities will demonstrate how to effectively use the new free Engineering Lesson Plan Toolkit to teach engineering concepts. Register Now>>


Wolff, Josephine, (6 March 2020). 9 Strategies for Retaining Women in Cybersecurity and STEM in 2020. Security Intelligence.

Agarwal, Dr. Pragya. (4 March 2020). Gender Bias In STEM: Women In Tech Still Facing Discrimination. Forbes.

Lee, Stephanie M. (13 February 2020). A Controversial Study Claimed To Explain Why Women Don’t Go Into Science And Tech. It Just Got A 1,113-Word Correction. BuzzFeed News.

Michelson, Joan. (12 February 2020). 9 Ways To Recruit And Promote Women In STEM – From The Cofounder Of The Grace Hopper Conference. Forbes.

Wood, Johnny. (11 February 2020). 3 things to know about women in STEM. World Economic Forum.

Richardson, Sarah S. (11 February 2020). Is There a Gender-Equality Paradox in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM)? Commentary on the Study by Stoet and Geary (2018). Sage Journals Psychological Science.

(6 December 2019). Corrigendum: The Gender-Equality Paradox in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education. Sage Journals Psychological Science.

Stoet, Gijsbert. (14 February 2018). The Gender-Equality Paradox in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education. Sage Journals Psychological Science.

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