Masala Chai and Global STEM Diversity

Co-written with A. Crosser

Taking a short break from an amazing NGO Leadership Summit put on by Center for Social Leadership and Sevalaya last week in Chennai, India, I decided to walk the halls of Anna Technological University and look for some tea with milk and cardamom. I met a man and his wife on an alumni gathering and he shared how dramatically things have changed.

"When I went to school here in 1963 just two out of one thousand engineering students were women," he said.

I cringed as I have spent the last four years hearing stories of isolation from many female engineers and computer scientists. "But walking around today, it's filled with young women. Now, over 60% of the students are female," he shared. "That's the biggest change."

"Progress," I said with a beaming smile, but then thought of the American Association of University Women report Why So Few, that shows only 12% of engineers are female in the US and we know women computer science majors have been on a significant decline in the past few decades... "Less progress," I thought to myself with a slump.

With the turn of the century has come a flood of bright young minds looking to break into the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Medicine (STEM), hoping that through their life's work, they may find new innovations in the most important fields through research and development. Around the world STEM fields are growing, partially due to the rise of importance in computer science and engineering. Although the growth of these fields has meant the fulfillment of big dreams for many, many others continue to look in from the outside.

Historically, STEM fields have been known to be the least diverse, with those employed typically being male Asians and Caucasians. In the United States alone, only 24 percent of STEM positions are filled by women, with African-Americans and Latinos combined making up less than 15% of the field's workers.

In more promising news, many companies around the world have taken deeper notice of the issue, and are beginning to find solutions which will better promote diversity in the workplace. One angle is to increase flexibility, needed for working families and this came up a lot in discussions with many women especially around childcare. A executive from Sevalaya shared with me a front page article that Deloitte just announced that women employees will now be receiving 26 weeks of paid maternity leave in an attempt to decrease the turnover as well as encourage more young women to apply at the company. Several other employers such as EY, PWC and KPMG, have all noted that they will also be moving to a 26 week maternity leave as well up from the country's typical 12 week maternity plan. These companies efforts in India are setting an excellent example for other employers worldwide to increase diversity through offering more family friendly policies.

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook also put a real stake in the ground when he took a few months off after the birth of his daughter. This is a time where the workforce is looking for work-life integration more than work-life balance and flexibility is paramount.

In addition to these companies making efforts to encourage long-term employment for their female workforce, many initiatives are being taken in the United States to help encourage young women to pursue careers in the STEM fields. The U.S. Government has committed to increase the number of available STEM educational opportunities as well as to "broaden participation to inspire a more diverse STEM talent pool." In addition, the New York Academy of Sciences' are doing their part to inspire young women with several programs which will work to encourage more high school students to pursue STEM careers. For example, their 1000 Girls - 1000 Futures program aims to give one-on-one mentoring for each student in hopes that it will encourage these young women to pursue careers in STEM after college. Lockheed Martin teamed up with Girls Inc. and are scaling their mentoring program in 12-15 US cities.

Diversity Rates Worldwide

Most of the data being discussed so far pertains to diversity rates in STEM fields across the United States, however many other countries around the world share the low numbers and often a low pipeline of candidates. For example, in the United Kingdom it is said that only 6 percent of math professors are women, while 42 percent of math majors are women. After college, many women either pursue jobs in non-STEM fields or simply have trouble finding jobs in the field.

Despite the bleak numbers of diversity coming from some of the world's largest STEM hubs, some countries and regions are making significant progress in employing women and minorities in technical positions. For example, in Latin America, over 45 percent of scientific researchers are women, putting them far ahead of the world average of 29 percent.

Much like Latin America, India is also becoming known as one of the greatest places for women to find careers in STEM fields. Over 30 percent of programmers in India are women, compared to only 21 percent in the United States. In addition, nearly 50 percent of STEM students are women in India, and between 35-40 percent of all STEM jobs are held by women. This gap is often attributed to the large number of female role models working in STEM fields in India. It is also said that tech fields are not considered to be masculine careers in India, which likely lends hand to the higher proportion of women workers.

As in India, women in China are finding themselves more often employed in STEM careers than women in the United States. In a recent announcement by Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, it was stated that one third of its partners are female, with similar rates being found in their general employment numbers. To put that number into perspective, California-headquarter Google states that only one in twelve of its partners are female.

I sip the last drops of Masala Chai watching four young engineering students pass me by in purple and wine color Saris with ornate gold embroidery and the smell of fresh Jasmine in their hair. I think of our host former Tata Consultancy Services executive, Murali Sevalaya who opened a school for child laborers and now has 2,000 beautiful children enrolled with robust STEM training and more. On his "spare time" he and his team assembled top non-profit leaders from all over India for the conference run by CSL's Anthony Silard (very proud of my older brother!) on Leading with Head, Hand and Heart. Big discussions ensue on how the best leaders lead, and how they create an empowering culture based on trust, empathy, and passion to better retain their employees while driving significant change for good.

Julie Kantor is the CEO of Twomentor, LLC a management consulting firm that provides mentor training, strategy and global speaking to elevate women and millennials in STEM.