Women in STEM and why you should have them by your side

Our industry is engaged in an important dialogue to improve sustainability through ESG transparency and industry collaboration. This article is a contribution to this larger conversation and does not necessarily reflect GRESB’s position.

Last Friday, February 11th, was International Day of Women and Girls in Science. And to mark it, we wanted to  shine a light on a highly relevant but rarely discussed topic: the gender gap in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). This article is written by GRESB Marketing & Communications intern Alice Pfeiff.

In the GRESB Real Estate and Infrastructure Assessments, we benchmark whether our participant organizations monitor inclusion and diversity and go so far as to ask the gender ratio within their organizations. This type of stakeholder engagement is a critical part of the S in ESG. 

Having completed a minor in Gender & Sexuality during my bachelor’s degree, this topic really hits home for me. While interning at GRESB, I was very interested in understanding the extent to which a company’s level of diversity, equity and inclusion is currently being benchmarked in ESG, and how measuring methodologies could be improved. Hence, I decided to take the occasion of International Day of Women & Girls in Science to team up with some of our partners and interview five inspiring women working in STEM-related fields. I had the pleasure to speak with:

Chrissy Libber, Vice President and Chief Technical Officer at Resource Energy Systems
Sofia Melo, Director at CodeGreen Solutions
Kelsey Hamilton, Energy Engineer at Resource Energy Systems
Katie Breen, Associate General Counsel at Resource Energy Systems
Keri Janes, Energy Manager at Resource Energy Systems

During these five interviews we touched on several important topics. The structural inequalities behind the gender gap in STEM were thoroughly discussed and insightful practical advice on how to make a change, at least within the ESG industry, was shared.

The complex dynamics underlying gender-based discrimination, which start at an early age in school, persist as women enter the workforce. As such it permeates different cultures and countries and can be found at all levels within an organisation.   

Almost all interviewees have encountered some form of difficulty while pursuing a career in STEM. Although progress has been made and deserves to be acknowledged – for example, we are witnessing increasing visibility and representation of women in STEM –, various challenges still lie ahead. We are still at a point where women’s competencies in STEM are often questioned by default, requiring women to prove and justify their presence at the first interaction. Complicating the challenge is the fact that this type of (unconscious) bias isn’t limited to just men – women in STEM observe this with women colleagues as well.

Not only in STEM but in the business world in general, women are often subject to a double standard whereby an assertive man is deemed competent and reliable, and an assertive woman is deemed bossy. “All prejudices run deep – even among women” said Chrissy Libber while talking about the importance of community and support among women and how, rather than competing against each other, strengthening mutual support could help overcome the obstacles that almost all women in STEM are facing. In order for that to happen, Chrissy explained, it is necessary to let go of the misconception that you can only turn back and help other women once you have achieved your personal goals, as it is assumed that doing it before could compromise your own success and performance. 

An element that cannot go unmentioned when discussing the role community plays for women is mentorship. The perspective of Kelsey Hamilton, as a millenial engineer, was of great value in this regard. Kelsey provided brilliant examples of how gender- and age-based discriminations can overlap. Years of experience are often valued as a determining factor when hiring. The lack of women in leadership and management positions within STEM-related fields (only 3% of STEM industry CEOs are women)  is a reflection of the fact that the gender gap used to be more acute in the past. The latter might be a reason to celebrate on one hand, as the number of junior women employees in STEM is growing, but on the other, it constitutes an additional obstacle to young women pursuing a career in STEM and might even discourage them from choosing that as a career path, as they lack mentors and role models to inspire and assist them along the way. As a matter of fact, although we are witnessing a shortage of skilled laborers in most technological fields driving the Fourth Industrial Revolution, women still only account for 28% of engineering graduates; 40% of graduates in computer science and informatics; and just 5% of students in mathematics and statistics (UN). So what do women bring to the table that men don’t and how can we make the value of their input increasingly evident to external parties, including  investors?

One thing that can be agreed upon is that women in STEM – and in business in general – have only managed to obtain more equal rights and opportunities by challenging the status quo.

All interviewees stated that being challenged when entering the STEM world has put them in the position of having to prove their worth and competence more tenaciously than their male counterparts. This has allowed them to develop the ability to think outside the box and find original solutions to recurring problems – a skill that constitutes a very interesting potential benefit for companies. As observed by Keri Janes, Energy Manager at Resource Energy Systems, women tend to have a more holistic view that enables them to solve the issue at hand while also having a long-term vision and maintaining awareness of other factors the issue might be associated with.  

Furthermore, the fact that women are relatively new to the industry makes them more open to alternatives and allows them to bring a fresher perspective to those same problems we have been facing for a while and now find ourselves having to solve, urgently.

Sofia Melo, Director at CodeGreen Solutions, also pointed out that because women are part of a minority and have been brought up to be more empathetic and nurturing, they have developed qualities and adopted viewpoints that might not be found as frequently among men. Empathy is arguably one of the elements at the basis of sustainability, as by caring about the environment we are caring about future generations. However, the characteristics that have been equated with success in business often exclude empathy as a desirable trait. “Empathy can be a powerful tool” said Katie Breen, Associate General Counsel at Resource Energy Systems. “Has it been utilized to its potential capabilities?”

By considering the crisis humanity is currently facing, the contribution women could give by working in STEM-related fields becomes obvious. Finding alternative ways of building, consuming and existing has never been more important, and women have been learning how to think differently for a while – because they had to. It is therefore in investors and companies’ best interest to diversify their team and board, and it is in the ESG industry’s best interest to start placing more focus on the S in ESG and hence develop better methodologies to measure the level of diversity, equity and inclusion of companies. Katie Breen’s point of view on this particular aspect was very insightful given her role as associate general counsel with a background in law. “We need to develop company-wide policies designed to diversify the workforce and ensure equal pay, which means we need women at the table making those decisions.” These types of policies and their measurement should be put in place not just so that companies can fill a quota; the goal is to improve job hiring, retention and promotion pathways while developing an intentionally inclusive culture, as pointed out by Keri Janes. 

Without having to dwell on the nature or origin of the differences that exist between women and men, it is time to recognise that the value of these exact differences is priceless and can turn out to be greatly enriching to any business. Leveraging the different sets of skills men and women have to offer is definitely a strategy that will prove to be effective and beneficial, in the long-term. The adversity women in STEM were put through has eventually enabled them to develop tools that should not be taken for granted. How can we make sure these tools are being put to the service of a greater purpose? It is up to us to decide. 

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