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Women in STEM – Retention, and Avoiding a Toxic Workplace

By Isaac Brown

Many companies are wildly understaffed right now. I have nothing unique to say about “The Great Resignation”, but instead want to focus here on an issue that existed before the pandemic: Staffing & retention of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

POLITICO reported that Rachel Wallace, former general counsel to the White House’s top science adviser, filed a complaint against her director, Eric Lander. She said he “retaliated against staff for speaking out and asking questions by calling them names, disparaging them, embarrassing them in front of their peers, laughing at them, shunning them, taking away their duties, and replacing them or driving them out of the agency. Numerous women have been left in tears, traumatized, and feeling vulnerable and isolated.”

Read that again, then read these two statistics…

  • 40% of women in STEM exit within the first 5 years.
  • 69% of women who leave or stagnate name a toxic work environment as the cause.

The fallout from women leaving STEM? Their lives, teams, initiatives, companies, industries, and nations – and even critical efforts like disease response – are impaired.

I had the pleasure of connecting recently with D Sangeeta, Founder and CEO of Gotara. Gotara provides curated guidance and on-demand mentorship to help women in STEM careers navigate toxic work environments and improve satisfaction in their jobs, with the end-goal of improved retention. Sangeeta opened my eyes to some of the issues plaguing this landscape:

  • Only 5% of women who left STEM did so to become stay-at-home mothers.
  • The average overall cost to employers is $300,000 every time they lose a woman in a STEM role. US employers spend up to $9 billion annually in attrition-related costs – due to cost of replacement, time lost to the role being left open, and the learning curve associated with onboarding the new hire.
  • McKinsey claimed in a 2016 report that it will take a century before women close the gender gap in senior roles in corporate America, and they found that enabling a female-friendly workplace could generate an additional $2.1 trillion in the US economic output in 2025.

So we’ve assessed some of the damage. How do we prevent it?

Sangeeta has faced these struggles throughout her own STEM career (a decorated career including GE, Nielsen, and Amazon). She founded Gotara to address these issues. Gotara combines mentoring, coaching, and upskilling into nano-learning that is just-in-time and personalized in a confidential space. 

Today, Gotara has over 11,000 users from 150+ countries, with employers from startups through Fortune 500 companies. Participants select two skills they want to develop during the 8-week programTo date, 96% have said they’ve improved their skills by 20–60%, and 100% of these women and their managers report that they recommend the program. The daily 15-minute training modules have helped them to be more productive, and to feel more empowered and motivated.

Sangeeta explains that there are not a lot of efficient options to help solve this problem. One-on-one dedicated coaching is often too expensive to offer at scale. Internal mentoring is OK for dealing with specific business/commercial issues, but tends to fall short for helping with more sensitive personal issues.

A toxic workplace, the leading driver of women quitting STEM, requires intervention. External experts like Gotara or other specialist consultants help employers build inclusivity programs. Sangeeta says that most internally-developed programs fail, that these companies truly need outside help – so that they’re proactively retaining this talent as opposed to just trying to figure out what happened after someone quit.

And inevitably, there will still be systemic discrimination – employers can and should do everything possible to lay out the right policies and provide the proper training, but these issues will still come up in one-on-one meetings or small settings where they simply can’t be policed out. That’s why it’s essential for STEM women to have a resource they can turn to when it’s happening to them.

These problems are not unique to women in STEM, but rather part of a broader pattern of issues surrounding diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) staffing. Do you know any other companies like Gotara that are helping employers crush it in the broader DEI human resources space? If so, we’d love to hear about it! And if you’d like to connect with Sangeeta to learn more about Gotara or her experiences, feel free to reach out.

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