Help Reduce the Quit Rate for Women in STEM

In many ways, this has been the decade of STEM and women’s leadership. There are hundreds of initiatives nationwide supporting increased participation by girls in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programs, and just as many programs and organizations advocating for women leaders.

But there’s a gap between the investment in encouraging technical careers for girls and young women and the ROI in terms of the actual number of women who make it to management-level positions in STEM. The “Quit Rate” is high, as this chart shows:


A study from the National Center for Women & Information Technology starkly illustrates the problem. Female retention numbers in STEM fields are dismal, and companies are trying to understand why, and how to change this trend.


‘Engineering Exiles:’ Why Are Women Leaving STEM?

I joined CCL in 2016 after a long career in Silicon Valley, where I worked in technology marketing & product management with software and networking companies. I’ve reported to VPs and CEOs who were engineers, and have always worked closely with engineering teams to define new products. There’s always been significant representation of women in staff engineer roles, but as their careers progressed, I noticed that very few moved into engineering and technical leadership roles — many women with STEM expertise ended up in marketing and product management positions instead.

These ‘engineering exiles’ were always very successful, combining technical talent with the listening and communication skills required to translate customer needs into product plans, and to work with engineers to design them.

It always left me wondering:

  • Why do so many women leave technical and engineering career paths?
  • Why is the quit rate so much higher for women in STEM fields than men?
  • And what would it take to keep them progressing into technical and engineering leadership roles?

This dilemma came back into focus during my first month at CCL when I met one of these ‘engineering exiles’ (we have many here!), Senior Faculty Kelly Simmons. My colleague Kelly was an engineer at Hewlett-Packard early on, but she left to build a career in leadership development. Like me, she was interested in seeing how we could tackle this challenge.


Reducing the Quit Rate for Women in STEM

Since Kelly and I are both devotees of design thinking and lean startup methodologies, we developed our own ‘startup,’ drawing on decades of CCL research about women’s leadership and issues. We tested it with 50 women technologists at the IEEE WIE International Leadership Conference, and then we piloted it in San Jose with support from PayPal. After several pilots of Advancing Technical Women in 2017, we launched the program in 2018.

Following the pilots, our Evaluation Team surveyed participants and we interviewed program sponsors and engineering managers who sent participants to the program. A few key takeaways:

  • Research matters. Technologists are driven to ask questions and demand proof. The fact that ATW content is based on decades of women’s leadership research from CCL and others made it extremely credible to this audience. We watched women’s attitudes change from skeptical to enthusiastic once they understood the research behind program concepts.
  • It’s a journey. The women in the pilots were able to apply the learnings and tools over the 6-month period and could see tangible benefits over time. Many of them received promotions or expanded their staffs, and one woman even secured a coveted speaking engagement at a technical conference — and they gave full credit to ATW.
  • Focus on actions, no fluff. After all, these are engineers! There were specific challenging assignments they had to accomplish in their work environment, along with longer term action plans that really made the learning stick.
  • Keep the relationships going. The group established a community and network of support that they want to continue. Since most are in male-dominated work environments, this group provides a safe place to brainstorm, test ideas, and practice.

Since launching, we’ve added more sophisticated features, including an online learning platform that tracks progress and assignments, builds community, and keeps the group engaged throughout the 6 months and beyond. We also added a virtual option for the final closing session to teach participants how to be as impactful online as in person.


The Future for Women in STEM

Our goal is to expand the scope of this program for women in STEM more globally. In addition to offering the program throughout the U.S., many of the companies that participated in the pilot have large engineering populations in China and India, where technical women are even more challenged.

We also want to work with women’s leadership organizations to offer the program to their memberships. And we want to bring the Advancing Technical Women program to other technical, “hard skills,” male-dominated professions. CCL has female faculty members who are “exiles” from aerospace engineering, chemical engineering, pharmaceuticals, healthcare, and other industries where this program could be equally valuable.

In our data-intensive, technology driven world, the need for engineering, technical, and scientific professions is growing exponentially. Our research-based approach and heritage in women’s leadership is a perfect fit — and ATW is a natural extension of our service offerings.

We’re looking forward to providing leadership training for women in STEM to make a dent in that “Quit Rate” statistic and help these women become thriving leaders and contributors.

Explore our groundbreaking leadership development program for women in STEM, Advancing Technical Women.


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