Are We Underselling the Promise of Women in STEM Leadership Roles?

June 27, 2017

Stephanie Neal and Audrey Smith, Ph.D.

Within a field that advances so quickly, why is it that progress for women in STEM is so abysmal and how can that be changed?

Two women scientists working together in a chemistry lab

Within a field that advances so quickly, why is it that progress for women in STEM is so abysmal and how can that be changed?

By Stephanie Neal and Audrey Smith, Ph.D.

The future workforce will be dominated by a surge in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). STEM jobs are already a major engine of economic growth, and not just for traditional technology companies, as the impact of “tech” and digital disruption continues to grow in all industries. The problem? There is a huge talent shortage in tech—one that is primarily female. Girls Who Code, a non-profit organization dedicated to closing the gender gap in technology, recently released a report with Accenture that shows the number of women in tech jobs will fall to a new low over the next 10 years despite strong investment in educational STEM initiatives. In the United States, women currently make up nearly half of the workforce (48 percent), but hold less than a quarter (24 percent) of tech jobs and 18 percent of leadership roles at top tech companies.

This is surely a frustrating gap for women, but arguably a more troubling issue for technology organizations. As Vishal Sikka, the CEO of Infosys, puts it, “Something happened during the journey from [training] to management—and we lost our leverage over half of humanity.”

The business case for the benefits achieved via workforce and leadership diversity is strong. Overwhelmingly, evidence shows that greater diversity stimulates richer, and increased, innovation among work teams and in product design, not to mention better financial performance. In technology, the reality is even more out of balance with the evidence, especially in relation to the business advantage associated with leadership diversity. In a study of more than 20,000 venture-backed companies, Dow Jones VentureSource determined that successful startups have twice as many women in senior positions as unsuccessful companies. Tech companies led by women delivered higher revenues using 30-50 percent less capital. They were also more likely to survive the transition from startup to established business.

And then there is the consumer side to consider. In addition to representing half the working population, women also have the personal buying power, and in turn market voice, which is a force to be harnessed—or squandered. Yet despite the demonstrated payoff, most STEM industries have failed to achieve a critical balance of diversity in their leadership. And in technology organizations the numbers of women in STEM are flowing in the wrong direction. Even more troubling, once women step into tech leadership roles, their organizations struggle to retain them. In the high tech industry, the quit rate is more than twice as high for women (56 percent) than men.

Within a field that advances so quickly, why is it that progress for women in STEM is so abysmal? Several root causes are often offered to explain these gender gaps. This is our take:

  • Educational gap: The gender STEM gap may start in the classroom, but it culminates in the boardroom. There is a deep STEM educational access issue and, fortunately, it is attracting attention in the form of many initiatives that encourage more girls into STEM career paths. These initiatives have stimulated big investments from technology advocates such as Microsoft via the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation. This is a very positive development, as early education will help encourage more girls into STEM and can help keep them interested in STEM careers. But, education doesn’t fully explain the gap. Even women who are graduating with STEM degrees aren’t rising to top leadership roles in the same proportion as men.
  • Confidence gap: Women are underselling themselves, too. Although there are no observable skill gaps and both genders score equally well in objective assessments, women underrate themselves in digital acumen and technology skills when asked to score their own effectiveness (a finding that has been confirmed repeatedly in our ongoing Global Leadership Forecast research). So, the stark truth is that women’s lower self-ratings contradict the hard evidence, suggesting the only measurable difference between men and women is that women have lower assuredness in their own digital acumen and associated readiness.
  • Combine this self-efficacy gap with the fact that women are less likely than men to seek out leadership roles and promotions, especially in male-dominated industries where they get less support and may even be intimidated by cultural norms. These dynamics create real and perceived barriers to women being invited to take advantage of leadership opportunities. It also diminishes a sense of inclusion that can fuel individual contributor confidence to take the leadership leap—all exacerbated by a lack of proactive sponsors that help build the internal and external professional networks needed to propel women forward.
  • It's more like an endless loop than a glass ceiling. The dearth of successful female technology leaders described above risks inciting a negatively reinforcing, and cyclical, gap. That there are already fewer women in technology leadership, begets fewer women in future leadership roles as there are fewer role models, mentors, and sponsors to encourage women to join the leadership ranks. Formal mentoring programs that match potential leaders to experienced mentors, regardless of gender, will help break through biases and discomfort with seeking out mentoring relationships with members of the opposite sex.

Code or no code: Harness women for their leadership skills, not technology skills

While the popular focus is on increasing “women who code”, this is short-sighted. What technology really needs is the ascension of women who are ready, and asked to step up to key leadership roles. Of course, building equanimity in frontline coding roles will and should continue; however, the return on this effort will diminish as the technical language continues to change. In fact, many predict that code could soon be writing itself. As this capability emerges, having more women who code will not suffice as a game changer, but what would is fostering more women to lead people and teams that elevate their organizations’ ability to drive continual and disruptive innovation.

In fact, Humans are Underrated author Geoff Colvin and others highlight the irony that shifts towards advanced AI and technology create increased demand for the interpersonal skills that are uniquely human; a domain for which women consistently demonstrate an edge. Successful technology leaders will be those who are able to work with humans and machines to unleash optimal synergy; as such, female leaders are well-positioned to offer a competitive advantage.

Wasted promise? It’s time to capture the untapped potential of women for STEM leadership roles

Our digital future will require vastly different leadership skillsets and mindsets than those that have dominated to date. Technology-driven work teams will increasingly be guided as a collective, dependent upon harmonious values and Agile management approaches—all while embracing ambiguity and disruption. This new reality will require purposeful leadership commitment to balance the seemingly competing values of harmonization and embracing disruption.

Who is best to lead that future? Increasing the trajectory of women into STEM leadership roles may offer a new code for success. There are numerous reasons to believe women, regardless of their technical backgrounds, are innately hard-wired to effectively lead technology teams. Organizations who recognize this will capitalize on the following:

Empathy—men systemize while women empathize

Empathy, the ability to identify with or understand the perspectives and emotions of others, and a skill that women have in greater abundance, is growing in importance as technology advances. Every job that can be automated either already is or will be in the not-too-distant future. As a result, focus is shifting to how people and leaders can differentiate themselves with interpersonal skills, ones that machines and software are unlikely to replace. In STEM fields, the ability to systemize—to figure out how things work—has been one contributing factor to greater male-dominance since it is more spontaneously natural for men to analyze, explore, and construct the systems in which they work.

Women, on the other hand, have been more inclined than men to analyze and interpret other’s emotions, to better construct an understanding of the appropriate emotion to use in responding to other people. DDI’s research consistently shows that women outperform men in interpersonal skills like empathy. It has been posited this strength has anthropological roots in how women have been, and still are, in some cultures, groomed and raised to be nurturers. Now and in the future, women (and men) who lead with empathy will be better positioned to understand and leverage the strengths of their teams to continue to drive technological advancements.

Collaboration—leading innovative teams requires more collaborative, harmonious leadership

The rise of Agile methodologies, and their mandate for more collective leadership, offers potential leverage for emerging women leaders. Perhaps due to their more natural inclination to be empathetic leaders, women are also more likely to lead inclusively and collaboratively. This is an essential skill in a technology team environment because fierce collaboration and shared ownership has been shown to lead to better concept generation and ultimately, to higher-impact innovation. This especially applies to teams that are more widely dispersed, and teams that successfully bridge functions and geographies.

Innovation—enabled by inclusion of diverse perspectives

Research on team innovation and performance provides compelling evidence that ensuring inclusion of diverse perspectives unlocks innovation and drives market growth. Similarly, enhanced gender balance in technology leadership can catalyze channels for stronger diversity throughout the organization—starting with recruitment and fueling the long-term cultural shifts required for sustainability.

Humility—women may help disrupt the inevitability of the arrogance S-curve

Much has been written about the S-curve of how early business success can swiftly turn to failure unless leaders recognize emerging challenges that demand candid reflection and swift adjustment, whether through new operational tactics or re-invention of strategy. Depictions of the S-curve commonly use mountain imagery to represent how initial growth can just as quickly shift into rapid decline—early wins and the resulting, unchecked confidence can devolve into arrogance. In other words, leaders in periods of growth and expansion are vulnerable to overestimating short-term strengths as a sustainable advantage.

Ironically, the confidence gap between women and men may create an advantage that shouldn’t be overlooked. As noted, women tend to be less confident than their male peers. This humility may offer sufficient impetus to take appropriate pauses, and engage in more candid self-reflection about organizational capacity and readiness to shift gears. The value of humility in technology leadership, and the risks associated with hubris have gained some recent critical attention in the press, most notably with the illegal registration and harassment charges leveled against Uber. Humility can also support more openness to competing perspectives, collaborative leadership, and innovation.

Engagement with technology—women are leading the way

Women are also engaging in social media and leveraging new technology and communication platforms in greater numbers. In DDI’s recent Social CEO research brief we found that women were far more likely to actively engage with social media. They made up only 12 percent of sample, but 33 percent of more social CEOs with accounts on Twitter.

Innovation—women have a profile for it

Leverage their collaboration and natural humility! An influx of different thinkers, such as women into a male-dominated industry, will create a surge of new and potentially disruptive ideas, products, and services. Women are also less likely to adopt the command-and-control mentality that is antithetical to innovation in today’s fast-paced, volatile, and highly competitive technology sector.

Better understanding of customers—women are the market

While companies tend to think of products or services as gender-neutral, in practice they’re often not. Women are the voices of technology—Alexa and Siri—and are also the major consumers. Designing with and for women has often proven to result in more successful products, opened up new markets, and made existing markets more profitable.

Breaking the endless loop

It is time to accelerate a new era—one in which women can heighten their representation, confidence, and impact as leaders within the STEM arena.

For an industry segment where disruption and change are the new norm, there’s a stunning lag for commensurate progress with respect to leadership trends favorable to women. The Achilles heel in this reality may be found in the reality that diversity is simply table stakes, but ultimately insufficient. It is authentic inclusion that creates the experiential and learning context for leadership growth. Given the strong business case for attracting, developing, and promoting capable, ready-now women into STEM leadership roles, innovation-focused technology organizations must take deliberate, proactive steps to drive the return associated with greater inclusion. These organizations must assertively embrace the following shifts.

Shape organizational mindsets that invite new voices

The business media is rife with predictions of innovation-cycle disruptions of historic proportions—and the declining fates of those who do not adapt and capitalize on every innovation asset they have. Further, as cyclonic changes in technology touch every industry, segment, and discipline, from retail to classical STEM organizations, more organizations (arguably most) will be described as tech-driven, or at least informed by STEM considerations. In this context, the value proposition shifts from accelerating women in STEM leadership roles to a more universal mandate to increase the number of women in leadership in a digital era.

This new context demands that STEM organizations go beyond advancing digital leadership skillsets to creating new, non-negotiable mindsets (e.g., attitude) that encourage, and even run toward disruption. This mindset demands that leaders listen deeply, and learn to embrace opportunities to seek and listen to new points of view. However, it will only prevail when collaboration is mandated, and openness to new leadership perspectives supersede obsolete, hierarchical decision-making models. This new mindset cannot be a claim; it must be demonstrated via promoting leaders, including women, who demonstrate the stronger leadership essentials described above.

At an enterprise level, organizations must further align around new mindset expectations by rewarding and promoting those who drive for inclusion.

Rethink and revise leadership success profiles

As organizations are forced to continuously reinvent and transform, success profiles must balance appreciation of confidence and surety with humility.

Author Jim Collins has identified humility as a characteristic of Level 5 leaders who achieve sustained success through receptivity to feedback and taking responsibility while sharing credit with others. Synthesizing research findings on confidence gaps between men and women with findings of stronger female performance in the “leadership essentials” (including listening) offers a “humility advantage” interpretation.

For their part, perhaps it could be posited that the more women know the more they don’t know. We now acknowledge that in times of change, what got you where you are isn’t going to get you where you need to go. Will women better recognize the need to reconsider—and take advantage of—the new formula for success?

Create magnetic cultures

Organizations need to embrace and even covet a culture in which gender inclusion is accepted as an edge. Gender balance has emerged as more than a cultural or social issue in corporate boardroom discussions. The evidence is strong that diversity is now viewed as a business imperative for competitive, growth-focused organizations; 78 percent of CEOs prioritize diversity as crucial for ensuring mid- and long-term success. There is also considerable evidence that perceptions of workplace fairness, in terms of gender diversity, pays off.

Even so, today’s imbalance of men versus women in STEM leadership roles is often rationalized as a matter of timing, or a consequence of women—and organizations—being “late to the game” when it comes to being encouraged to pursue STEM education. Looking forward, this imbalance won’t pass the sanity test much longer. The recent focus in STEM education for women will elevate expectations for accelerating the readiness and deployment of more female leaders, as frontline “doers” advance through the leadership pipeline.

Organizations interested in “catch-up” should recognize that qualified individuals in under-represented populations shy away from leadership within cultures they perceive as uninviting. For women, it means they may hesitate to join the ranks of organizations, functions, or corporate cultures with reputations for undervaluing or demonstrating aversion to women unless they adapt their leadership style or behavior to fit in. Furthermore, women are less likely to be promoted into untried roles (i.e., leadership) in environments in which there are few successful role models—or even an existing population of women leaders. Reversing real or perceived barriers demands consideration of proactive tactics (e.g. create an affinity group for women to rise, and to succeed).

Unlocking the promise: Enable women to become great STEM leaders

Organizations that are authentically committed to raising the profile and impact of women in STEM leadership ranks must create differential focus. Below are some specific tactics for promoting and supporting women in leadership that can be embedded into a broader leadership strategy built to fuel the organizations’ future.

  • Recognize and reward those who personally champion and advance women in leadership as a key business and cultural priority—because it is a priority.
  • Diversify sources of talent, and consider new prospects as sources of innovation, diverse perspectives, and different thinking. Help hiring managers recognize and capitalize on the ROI from this approach. For example, you can share with them some of the research and statistics linked to and included in this article.
  • Train hiring managers to use structured selection approaches, such as behavioral interviews and objective assessments that help overcome hiring bias. A recent Harvard Business Review article offered the point of view that the best way to drive diversity is to select for it. Attempting to train diversity awareness is a less effective approach.
  • Ensure early identification of those with latent, even under-recognized potential to lead in changing contexts. This includes accepting predictors of longer-term growth trajectory for women (and others) to take bigger risks.
  • Brand and create an environment where women can bust right through the glass ceiling!
  • Enable more mentors within technology. Most importantly, formalize mentoring, because women don’t often ask for it.
  • Encourage women to build and cultivate internal and external networks. This will help create the expectation and space for women and their allies to spend time on building relationships.
  • Track leadership metrics and business outcomes associated with a cultural transformation that drives women in leadership.

The graphic below outlines leadership imperatives and practices, ranging from foundational (good) versus exceptional (great) practices that fuel an acceleration culture for all. Explicit levers for activating readiness for women in leadership, in STEM organizations and others are highlighted as well.


We have management’s support and involvement.Senior management is competitive about making acceleration happen, and personally champion diversity as a key business and cultural priority.

We have a good competency model in use organization-wide.Our leadership model is business-relevant and focused on our most critical strategic and cultural priorities – encompassing a drive for inclusion.

We have an annual talent review process and our executives are very engaged in it.We teach our leaders how to be shrewd and accurate in seeking and reviewing talent, so that they identify under-leveraged assets, e.g. women, with leadership potential.

We use assessment for key roles and high-risk scenarios.We have a nearly unhealthy addiction to objective talent data, and embrace predictors of longer-term growth trajectory for women and other diversity targets.

We have a wide array of learning courses and options available for our leaders.We create powerful learning and application experiences based on business needs, and aggressively accelerate development for women in under-represented roles, functions, and regions.

We hold our leaders accountable for fulfilling their roles in the process.We aggressively manufacture positive growth tension, and actively monitor leadership and business outcomes associated with WIL cultural transformation.

Women must do their part, too

Bottom line—and perhaps most importantly—women must STOP selling themselves short. They must declare themselves, and shape their brand as extraordinary, native leaders for escalating digital futures. Women must step forward to exploit the opportunities before them, and take risks to optimize that window of opportunity.

Ultimately, this is about far more than STEM education or women in STEM leadership—in a connected world, all leadership will be exercised in a digital context. As business is reinventing itself, women must as well.

Stephanie Neal is a research consultant for the Center for Analytics and Behavioral Research (CABER). She conducts evaluation studies and research on leadership and talent in the workplace, and is a co-author of DDI's Global Leadership Forecast. Outside of work, Stephanie relishes every opportunity to develop her mini-golf game and to help her son with his extra credit math problems.

Audrey Smith, Ph.D. is the senior vice president for DDI’s Talent Diagnostics around the globe, and also serves on DDI’s Operating Committee. She and her team serve as key architects for DDI’s diagnostic offerings across the leadership pipeline, ranging from the C-suite to emerging leaders. In her spare time Audrey enjoys gravel bike riding on the beautiful trails of Western Pennsylvania, as well as hanging out with her young grandchildren who will grow up as digital natives and renew her belief in future possibilities every day.