Inclusivity in STEM

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In August 2023, Tiger Recruitment hosted a roundtable event in Zurich, bringing together HR leaders to discuss diversity and inclusivity in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields in Switzerland. The insights and ideas are outlined in this report.

Table of Contents

STEM in Switzerland

Globally, STEM is lacking in female and diverse representation, and this is sadly also true in Switzerland. Case in point: just 22% of female STEM graduates in Switzerland are women, meaning that women and girls are much less likely to embark on a career in STEM.

Why is Switzerland slightly behind other European nations in workforce and STEM diversity? History may have played a role: The country’s neutrality in World War II possibly delayed women’s advancement, and women were only awarded the right to vote in 1971. For many European nations, the war sped up the introduction of women’s roles at work because they had to step in while men fought at war. This subsequently helped to shape the attitudes which drove systemic change.

Switzerland is a highly multicultural country, home to more than 190 nationalities. HR teams and hiring managers have a diverse pool of talent to choose from, and those working in STEM have the platform to encourage more diverse representation. Diversity is known to make businesses more agile and innovative, but to reach this point employers must shift their focus to hiring from non-traditional backgrounds. This also applies to internal mobility: Given that 83% of upper management and 77% of middle management in Swiss companies are male, HR teams can influence the direction of STEM in Switzerland by implementing inclusive strategies, thus encouraging cultural change.

Representation in STEM and the workforce

The below statistics highlight the lack of representation in STEM and in the Swiss workforce overall.

Defining Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI)

There are varying definitions of DEI within companies. One HR leader proposed a holistic perspective where diversity and inclusion culminate in a sense of belonging, while equity ensures that everyone’s voices are heard and considered. Regardless of whether companies create their own definitions of DEI, it’s important to explain the term in a way that will resonate with internal and external audiences. Doing so is crucial to achieving buy-in.

The HR leaders emphasised the importance of explaining the “why” behind DEI initiatives, both internally and externally. While many understand the importance of diversity, good intentions towards diverse hiring can often be abandoned when unexpected challenges arise. This can be due to a lack of planning, hiring under stress, or budgetary constraints. When this happens, people will often resort to what they know best and lean towards ‘safe’ hiring, resulting in like-for-like hires.

Taking it further, one HR leader stressed that DEI should be integrated into an organisation’s DNA. They highlighted the danger of treating DEI as a separate conversation, indicating that it should be critical to all processes and practices. When it is seen as a separate process rather than an integral part of the company’s culture, it will create more division in the business and barriers to achieving inclusivity.

Educating the team

The roundtable participants discussed the importance of having leadership buy-in for a successful inclusive hiring strategy. To do so, one HR leader mentioned the need to find common ground with leadership as a starting point. They did so by partnering with an external trainer who could empathise with leaders’ concerns while explaining the need for change. This made them more receptive to DEI ideas, so HR were able to implement them with less pushback.

Another HR leader similarly mentioned that leadership development was identified as a key area for improvement, particularly, developing the skills to nurture diverse teams. Coaching and mentorship programs were suggested as ways to support managers who may struggle with leading diverse teams effectively. This would help in retaining individuals from minority backgrounds who could otherwise feel alienated.

In addition to bringing in outside expertise, HR leaders discussed the importance of mentoring and offering support groups for employees to discuss their concerns and wellbeing. Seeking out a mentor is useful for building relationships with senior members of staff in hopes that these allies place pressure on leadership to adopt DEI policies.

Finding diverse talent

One HR leader highlighted the challenges of working in a predominantly male environment. Throughout her career at an engineering company, she worked to encourage more diverse hiring by having key conversations with the management team. As part of her efforts, she was given a bursary to support female students in STEM. The response was overwhelming, with 50 highly qualified female applicants. In doing so, she was able to respond to initial scepticism from senior leaders about the availability of female engineers and their desire to work in the field.

Swiss companies that have the desire to influence diverse representation in STEM, should consider adopting a similar strategy. If a programme has a built-in route to securing a job at the company, the business will benefit significantly through attracting more diverse talent.

Encouraging underrepresented groups, such as hiring neurodiverse individuals, to pursue STEM fields through partnership programmes and mentorship can lead to systemic change. Companies can further support these initiatives by sending mentors to schools or universities, providing young people with role models from minority backgrounds. This would inspire the next generation of STEM hopefuls: as one attendee aptly put it, “you rise by lifting”.

Addressing biases in recruitment

Ensuring a bias-free recruitment process is key to finding diverse talent. One HR leader emphasised the importance of using inclusive language in the interview process. They mentioned that their company had implemented a ‘hiring manager toolbox’ of language and expressions to guide hiring managers throughout the interview process and help them form stronger connections with candidates.

Another HR leader emphasised the value of providing training for hiring managers to reduce unconscious bias in the recruitment process. They accomplished this by producing videos featuring people from non-traditional backgrounds in certain STEM roles, to challenge the notion of what someone working in that role should ‘look like’. They also highlighted how people from non-traditional backgrounds often have to work harder to be in a position to apply for certain STEM roles. Similarly, a roundtable guest described the value of videos that showcase diverse employees on a company’s website, as a way to encourage more applications from non-traditional backgrounds.

To safeguard against unconscious bias, the hiring process should involve multiple decision-makers. One HR leader mentioned that their company’s policy involved an ‘inclusive advisor’ attending key meetings on hiring decisions. This person was tasked with identifying, questioning, and addressing biases to help achieve a more balanced outcome. In addition to hiring, this concept can also be utilised in performance and promotion discussion meetings.

Final word

Switzerland faces ongoing challenges in achieving diversity in STEM. While this partly originates from historical factors, the nation’s rich multicultural composition provides a unique opportunity for positive strides. If businesses are brave enough to break away from traditional hiring practices, cultural change will occur.

Integrating DEI into company culture, addressing biases, promoting education, and actively supporting underrepresented groups are all key to evoking change. The roundtable discussion underlined the urgency of fostering inclusivity in STEM in Switzerland, offering a roadmap for HR teams to unlock the full potential of diverse talent in the field.

Tiger Recruitment has a network of diverse candidates and can advise you on inclusive recruitment practices. Get in touch.

Author Jane Leese Tiger Recruitment Team

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