STEM Companies Keep Driving Women MBAs Away

By Melissa Anderson

iStock_000005922401XSmallA new Catalyst study shows that companies in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) industries are setting women MBAs up to fail from the start.

“The STEM industry has a poor reputation and our research shows that reputation is deserved. There is a significant gender gap across STEM, and not just in technical roles,” says Anna Beninger, director of research at Catalyst.

From ‘brogrammers’ in tech to the old boys club in oil and gas, these male dominated industries don’t do much to help women feel welcome. The women in the study all worked in business roles, as opposed to technical jobs. They reported being subjected to jokes based on sexual innuendo, and didn’t feel safe speaking up in meetings either. The culture in these companies continues to be toxic and noninclusive.

Beninger says she expected to encounter these types of barriers in her research.

“But what surprised me the most about the study is how leaky the pipeline in STEM really is,” she explains. “It says a lot about the ability of these companies to maximize their talent pool when so many women are taking their skills elsewhere.”

Based on surveys of almost 6,000 MBA grads working in business roles in the US, Canada, Europe, and Asia, Catalyst found that 53% of women left the STEM industry after their first post-MBA job, compared with only 31% of men.

And women have good reason for looking elsewhere. According to Catalyst’s research, women MBAs who do get jobs in business functions in these industries are more likely than their male peers to start at the entry-level, and they get paid less than their male MBA counterparts too.

Beninger says this is due in large part to the networks men are able to create while in business school.

“Through their network they gain visibility and get the attention of senior leaders in the industry, which they can leverage when they negotiate for job offers,” she says.

On the other hand, women working in business roles in these fields are often the only woman in the room. The vast majority (83%) of men in the survey said they felt similar to their co-workers. Just over a quarter (27%) of women said the same. That makes networking hard – both for women working in these industries and MBA grads working to break into them – especially in the toxic, “no-girls-allowed” culture described by the women in the survey.

“I asked a senior female executive in the oil and gas industry her best advice for young women and she said, ‘Use a black coffee mug in the office, because it doesn’t show lipstick marks,’” Beninger says.

“It’s very serious if that’s the best advice she has for women who want to advance in her industry.”

Even though the situation looks bleak for women MBAs in these fields, the good sign is that companies are looking to make changes. Catalyst lists dozens of high-profile STEM companies as research partners in the study. At some level, many of these companies do want to do better.

“This culture clearly has significant impact on organizations’ ability to get the best people for the job and then, once there, retain them. Women are more likely to leave,” Beninger says. She recommends that companies embark on culture assessments to identify problem areas, especially focusing on gender-based inequities in pay and promotion.

“We know too often women are promoted based on proven performance and men are promoted based on potential. Companies need to make sure promotion criteria is clear,” she says.

Female executives already working in these industries can help too.

“In heavily male dominated organizations, women lack support,” Beninger says. “Senior women who are there, certainly should sponsor up-and-coming female talent. And we’ve seen from the research that they are. The queen bee myth is dead.”

She encouraged companies to make a case to men for why they should get involved in gender diversity efforts. The women in the study said they wanted to advance to leadership levels no matter what industry they work in. Good talent is hard to come by – and if STEM companies are losing high potential woman to better jobs, it’ll be their loss in the long run.