Sunny Ackerman, SThree President, US

If you can’t get a seat at the table, then create your own table: Challenging gender bias and inequality for a more inclusive future

Last International Women’s Day nobody could have envisaged what the next 12 months would have in store for us. It’s great to see the achievements of women worldwide highlighted and celebrated once again, but this is also an opportune moment for us to lobby for gender equality and shine a light on the significant challenges we continue to face.

Any notion that the global health crisis could in some way help level the playing field for women can be well and truly dismissed. If anything, women have been hit harder by the pandemic. Research from McKinsey has revealed women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable to this crisis than men’s jobs. Similarly, despite making up just 39% of global employment, women account for 54% of global job losses.

In STEM, we’re seeing better access to careers for women but females are still under-represented in our industry. We see fewer women, compared to men, studying STEM subjects and a lack of women taking up STEM roles.

And that’s not because there aren’t any jobs. Our latest data revealed specialist STEM skills are still in demand despite rising unemployment, and 79% of our clients say it’s a challenge to find candidates with the right skills, in the right location. 

There are barriers out there for women and it’s up to us to take lead to do everything we can to remove them. For that reason, this year’s IWD theme of Choose to Challenge feels very apt.

Choosing to challenge

For me personally, choosing to challenge gender inequality and bias is all about raising your hand, leaning in, and questioning the status quo. That might sound simplistic but often showing up and stepping into the ring is half the battle.

Without a doubt that can be easier said than done. Women have a strong, and important, voice in today’s world – we need to create our own platform and challenge any sort of gender bias.

The majority of my career has been in recruitment where I’ve typically been the only female executive or one of the few women in the room when it came to important meetings. What have I learned from this? Never underestimate the power of women supporting each other in the workplace. By advocating for others, you’re not only helping get their points across, you’re in turn teaching others to make sure female voices are always heard in the business setting.

There still aren’t enough of us at the top table, but it’s imperative those of us that are there use our voices to create more seats and spaces for women in the future. And if you can’t get a seat at the table, then create your own table. However, it’s not just women who need to support women – everyone should be striving to be an ally.

From the top down

The leadership of a business is key when it comes to closing the gap on gender inequality. They really have to believe it’s an important topic and allow there to be platforms which raise awareness around it. In essence, the leadership of an organization has to be the driver for change.

In many cases leadership teams are male-dominated and it’s for this reason that men have to be a part of any discussions we’re having about inequality and bias. They can become allies if they truly understand the importance of the issue and difficulties we face.

At SThree, we’re in a strong position where our CEO truly values diversity of thought and ideas – by having different groups of people working closely with him in the business. Women make up approximately 40% of our Senior Leadership Team, 50% of non-executive directors, and 50.2% of our overall global business. It’s not just women that win here, the company does too as this diversity of thought allows for a broader range of voices, experiences, and ideas to be heard.

All of this ties in with our diversity and inclusion strategy which hinges on the belief that great minds do not think, look or act alike. That said, direct action is needed if companies want to level the playing field for women as unfortunately gender equality isn’t something that will occur organically. That’s why gender equality is a strategic pillar in our D&I strategy.

We’ve successfully used a female leadership program to help women into senior roles – and we’re currently refreshing our program. Internally, we have a network of women and allies who are passionate about gender parity, and externally we have created Breaking the Glass as a networking tool and platform to help us keep gender on the agenda. On top of that we’ve organized a number of diversity focused STEM Series events.

These have all made a difference, but we’ve still got a long way to go and have areas where we need to improve.

Creating pathways for women in STEM

As the world’s only pure-play STEM staffing specialist, we need to be leading from the front in creating pathways that allow women a route into our industry. At SThree, we’ve funded programs through our foundation that engage women in STEM. And it’s through providing opportunities for re-skilling and continuous education that we’ll open doors for people who are underrepresented.

One idea we should certainly be challenging is that top specialist STEM roles are more likely to be taken by men. We want to inspire women of all ages to compete for the most sought-after roles and ensure they never write off the idea of a career in the STEM industry. Some women need that push that will help them heighten their aspirations and believe that they’re just as deserving of these jobs.

A timely reminder of this is a 2017 article from CNBC which has recently resurfaced on social media and sparked great debate. It was about millennial women being ‘worried’ or even ‘ashamed’ about out-earning their male partners. Regardless of your thoughts on the matter, the fact any women could feel like that suggests some still see being the breadwinner as going against the norm – which is just wrong.

However, once women decide to embark on a career in STEM, we also need to ensure there’s a clear career path for them. There’s no point in encouraging more females into STEM roles if they’re not paid appropriately and have a clear trajectory into senior or leadership positions.

We’re still many years away from moving the gender parity needle in the STEM industry. Work is underway and it’s in everyone’s interests that we play our part in ensuring careers in our sector are not only available, but also an attractive prospect for women.

Simply put, we have to do better as it’s only through diversity of people that STEM can fulfil its potential and solve the complex problems our world is facing right now.

WATCH: Our people #ChooseToChallenge - Part 1

WATCH: Our people #ChooseToChallenge - Part 2

WATCH: Our people #ChooseToChallenge - Part 3