Growing up in Pakistan, I often wondered why boys were expected to become doctors or engineers while girls, including me, were encouraged to pursue teaching or home economics. So, when my cousin Sana became the first woman in my family to start a career in engineering, she also became my idol. But a few months later, my excitement soured when Sana quit her job halfway through her first pregnancy. Sana’s story, however, is not unique. Women make up less than 18 percent of Pakistan’s science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) professionals. Traditional gender roles and lack of access to formal childcare often play a critical role in many women’s decisions to forgo STEM careers.
STEM’s Female Brain Drain
The lack of gender diversity in STEM fields around the world, not just in South Asia or Africa, has been the subject of research and debate for several years. Many Silicon Valley companies are trying to institute policies to foster gender diversity. These efforts are often grounded in the recognition that if women continue to exit the industry, the shortage of qualified tech workers is likely to worsen.
Despite new shifts in the way companies manage talent, women are still less likely to enter and more likely to leave tech-intensive business roles. The Center for Talent Innovation reports that about 40 percent of highly-qualified scientists, engineers, and technologists are women, but that more than half of women working for science, engineering, and technology (SET) companies ultimately quit their jobs for reasons related to hostile work environments or extreme workplace pressures. Averaged across regions, women accounted for less than a third of those employed in scientific research and development in 2013. And among the top 20 tech companies, only 11 percent of senior management were women in 2014.
These are alarming trends, particularly given that women are now the majority of SET graduates in many countries. The World Economic Forum predicts that the net loss of over 5 million jobs in fifteen economies between 2015 and 2020 will hurt more women than men because sectors that are projected to grow, such as STEM, traditionally employ and retain few women.
Tackling Childcare is Critical
What prevents women from entering STEM fields and what drives them out? Research points to unconducive work environments and a lack of workplace policies that support a healthy work-life balance. Access to affordable, quality childcare is one such policy area that can significantly effect working parents’ career choices and earning potential.
Examining workplace policies, IFC, a member of the World Bank Group, found in its latest report that companies that support employees’ childcare needs can strengthen their bottom line by recruiting and retaining talent, reducing absenteeism and turnover, and increasing employee satisfaction and productivity.
The report, Tackling Childcare: The Business Case for Employer-Supported Childcare, not only substantiates the business case for strong childcare policies but provides a decision-making model for companies to help them analyze their business and workforce needs and implement a suitable childcare benefit. The report, based on ten case studies of companies offering various childcare solutions, shows that employers can choose from more to less resource-intensive options and still achieve better business outcomes.
How STEM is Tackling Childcare and Retaining Top Talent
Three companies featured in IFC’s Tackling Childcare report are major players in the global STEM industry. Mindtree, a global IT consulting firm in India, uses technology to support working parents: Mindtree’s MiLady app enables employees on maternity leave to stay connected with colleagues. The company’s on-site crèche, combined with varied other benefits for parents, including paid leave and flex work options, contribute to its high maternity and paternity return rates—87 percent and 93 percent respectively. In 2016, Mindtree was recognized as one of India's top ten companies for women to work for.
The case study of Akamai, a U.S.-based IT company, shows that an on-site crèche is not the only solution. Based on its business and workforce needs, Akamai partnered with Care.com, an online marketplace for care services, to offer back-up care to its employees. As a result, the company recorded increases in retention and motivation, even among employees who did not use the benefit but who viewed it as a reflection of Akamai’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.
At Sumitomo Chemical, a member of IFC’s Tackling Childcare global partnership and a principal stakeholder in Japan’s STEM industry, more men than women use its six childcare facilities. In addition to experiencing a consistently high maternity leave return rate, the number of fathers taking paid leave has also steadily increased due to efforts specifically targeting men. The company's leadership is encouraged that this trend can help redefine caregiving roles and improve gender equality in the company, in STEM, and across Japanese society.
How Can STEM Companies Do More?
Incorporating lessons learned from these cases, IFC’s Tackling Childcare report offers ten recommendations for other stakeholders around the world. Companies often realize greater returns on investment when they take a customized approach and support childcare for all employees as part of a broader corporate strategy. Most importantly, partnerships between the public and private sectors can expand investments in the care economy, build capacities of care providers, and create markets for care. Combined efforts can score a triple win for all: employees and their families, employers, and economies.