Teaching Soft Skills Can Help Women Stay in Science and Tech Jobs
A virtual program focused on interpersonal abilities boosts work satisfaction for women starting off in STEM.
Learning tools like negotiation and networking can increase confidence and connection. | iStock/Ponomariova_Maria
Most efforts to close the gender gap in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields focus on hiring. But women also quit STEM jobs at higher rates than men, an exodus that only intensified as millions of women left the labor market at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If we keep letting women leave, we’re not going to end up with more gender diversity,” says Shelley Correll, a sociology professor at Stanford University and a professor of organizational behavior, by courtesy, at Stanford Graduate School of Business. “We could start by stopping the bleeding.”
Correll and sociology PhD student Julia Melin found one way to do just that — through an online program that offered support for women starting off in STEM. In March 2020, a group of early-career women at a North American biotechnology firm began meeting with coaches and peers through a virtual platform. The six-month intervention focused on developing soft skills — interpersonal abilities such as negotiation, influencing coworkers, and strategic networking.
The study began just before COVID-related lockdowns went into effect. “Because of the widely known challenges with work during the pandemic, we were expecting a big decline [in soft skills] for people who weren’t in the program and stability for those in the program. Instead, we saw improvement for women in the program, and the amount of improvement for a short program like this was surprising to us.”
Soft Skills and Sticking Around
The researchers found that women gave their workplace soft skills higher ratings after participating in the program — an average increase of 9% over pre-pandemic levels. A control group of women who didn’t take part decreased their self-assessments by an average of 3.5% over the same period.
The gains weren’t just in participants’ minds. The researchers also found that the women who completed the online program received better performance reviews than their counterparts who hadn’t done the program. But it wasn’t improved evaluations from their bosses that predicted whether the women would still be working at the company a year later. Rather, those who gave themselves higher ratings on soft skills were significantly more likely to stick around.
In fact, while perceived soft skills remained mostly flat over the course of the study for men and women not in the intervention, “our retention model suggests that if everyone had the same soft skill gain as those in the intervention, the probability of retention would increase by approximately 10%,” Melin says.
Correll believes that helping women build confidence in their soft skills boosts retention because it encourages them to put those skills to use, sparking a virtuous cycle that ultimately makes them happier on the job. “Imagine I learned something about how to influence my colleagues and put it into action, and it works,” Correll says. “Not only am I getting more confident, but work is working for me. When I speak up, people listen. Projects are going in the direction I want. I’m getting credit for my ideas. I’m happier with my job because I feel I’m good at it.”
Without that confidence in her interpersonal abilities, a woman who’s beginning her career may find it challenging to be heard in a male-dominated STEM workplace, regardless of her technical skills. “Perhaps she tries and gets shut down, people ignore her, she makes a suggestion and someone else gets credit for it. That’s a very frustrating experience,” Correll says. “People won’t listen to you, so you leave.”
Remote But Not Alone
Correll and Melin didn’t expect a pandemic when they set out to test whether an online intervention could help women feel more self-assured about their soft skills. When shelter-in-place orders came down in early 2020, shortly after they had conducted baseline surveys, the researchers considered abandoning the project. But they realized the experiment was the perfect setup to examine whether virtual connections could act as a buffer against the decline in soft skills they expected amid pandemic-related stress, isolation, and disruption.
Beyond teaching tangible skills, “the program created an avenue for women in the company to talk to each other about the content in the context of COVID,” Correll says. “They could share their stories and strategies while all this was going on.”
Correll believes similar programs could help employers address the challenges that come with remote and hybrid workplaces, which can make it difficult for women to build networks and be heard. Those barriers, in turn, could lead to even higher attrition in STEM fields. “It’s worth being intentional about developing the kinds of soft skills that can help people be effective in the new arrangement we find ourselves in,” she says. (In her latest research, Correll is examining how women and people of color experience hybrid workplaces, with the aim of making them more inclusive.)
For Correll, such interventions would be a critical step forward for women at a time when the pandemic has set global gender equality back by a generation. “Retaining women at work is crucially important right now,” she says. “Otherwise, we’re going to just keep widening the gap more and more. We’re going backward.”
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