Who run the world? Girls! – Beyoncé
Women have made great strides in the workplace, but there is still a long way to go, especially in STEM fields. In the U.S., women make up only 25% of the computer science workforce and hold just 14% of software engineering positions. While the pay gap is prevalent in every job sector, it is especially pronounced in STEM, where womens’ median earnings are 74% of mens’. Even women in leadership roles struggle, with women receiving just 2% of total investor funding in 2016.
COVID-19 has exacerbated many problems faced in the workplace, and this may have significant consequences. In 2021, one in three women said they considered leaving the workforce or downshifting their career. But we can still make changes to help women. Whether it is keeping working mothers in the workforce or helping women advance to senior leadership positions, supporting women in health tech is crucial. Here are some challenges women face, and solutions for addressing them:
Unequal Opportunities for Advancement
Women face obstacles that men do not face when advancing in the workplace. Mentorship helps people move into leadership roles. However, women are 24% less likely than their male colleagues to get advice from senior leaders.
There are also challenges with promotion. Women face a “broken rung” on the ladder to leadership, with only 86 women being promoted to manager for every 100 men. This results in having fewer women available to promote at each subsequent level. The problem gets worse the higher you look on the corporate ladder, meaning that there are fewer and fewer women in leadership roles.
Helping Women Advance with Sponsorship
We can help women advance and grow in the health tech field. Women need people in senior leadership roles to sponsor them if they want to advance in the workplace. Harvard Business Review suggests that there are five stages of sponsorship:
- Mentors offer advice and coaching to the individual
- Strategizers share information about getting ahead and strategize how to reach goals
- Connectors introduce the individual to influential peers and says complimentary things about the person to their peers
- Opportunity givers provide the individual with high-visibility opportunities to help them advance
- Advocates publicly promote an individual and fights for the person in places where they cannot speak for themselves
You can either set up a formal sponsorship program in your work environment, or encourage individuals in leadership roles to sponsor newer employees.
Discrimination in the workplace and unsafe work environments
Many women work in psychologically or physically unsafe environments. 64% of women experience microaggressions in the workplace, and these microaggressions still persist in virtual work environments. Women may face discrimination for their gender identity, racial or ethnic background, sexual orientation, being a mother, and more. Additionally, recent studies find that 45% of women in technical fields report they’ve been sexually harassed in the workplace.
These unsafe environments may make women uncomfortable to voice opinions or work towards promotions, and may also cause them to look for jobs elsewhere. However, if the problem persists, women may get frustrated and settle for undesirable jobs or leave the workforce.
Addressing Unsafe Environments
One way to create safer environments is to create or improve workplace policies. Create an anonymous way for employees to report harassment and other concerns. Be transparent in how these complaints are handled, and invoke appropriate consequences. Women want to know that they can trust their workplace to create an environment where they can flourish in their work without worrying about their safety.
Another way to create safer, more inclusive workplaces is to have employees undergo unconscious bias training. This helps individuals recognize their own biases. Then, provide opportunities to help employees find strategies to consciously recognize and mitigate these biases.
Outside of Work Responsibilities
Disproportionate Share of Care Responsibilities
Women take on disproportionately high rates of care outside the workplace. Women do almost 2.5 times more unpaid care and household work than men. Additionally, 12% of women took on additional caregiving responsibilities during the pandemic.
Mothers were hit particularly hard during the pandemic. During COVID-19, 47% of working moms took unpaid sick leave because of school or daycare closures. Additionally, 26% of women who became unemployed during COVID-19 said it was because of a lack of childcare.
35% of US workers are employed at places that offer paid parental leave, but just because the employer offers it does not mean that every employee gets that benefit. This also does not mention how much women get paid and how long they get this leave for. The US is one of only a small number of countries around the world without guaranteed paid parental leave. This is a stark contrast from other countries, such as Sweden, where parents are guaranteed 480 days of paid time off of work for birth or adoption, and in Japan where parents are each entitled to up to a year of paid leave after the birth of a child.
These extra care responsibilities and stress impact women’s professional lives in multiple ways. First, these extra responsibilities can exacerbate mental health problems and burnout, meaning women do not have the same energy and attention to devote to their work. Women may also miss networking opportunities or events because they need to leave early to care for children or may not be able to travel because they don’t have childcare – potentially furthering the gap in mentorship between women and men.
Improving Workplace Policies
Improving policies in the workplace can help women. Increasing flexibility – such as remote work, or less strict working hours – can help women complete their work at times when they can devote the most attention to it. However, there also needs to be boundaries with flexible work (don’t expect people to go to 7PM meetings). Additionally, offering paid sick leave and parental leave can help women focus on their personal lives without being scared of losing much-needed money and opportunities.
Women bring valuable knowledge and skills that can help health tech become more equitable and effective at helping the entire population. This is something we need now more than ever.