Revealing the Factors That Restrict the Recruiting of STEM Women (Part 2 of 2)

STEMThis is the final part of a two-part research-based series that is designed to reveal and describe the four categories of factors that restrict the recruiting of STEM women (i.e. women with degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math) into high-tech firms.

In part one we highlighted Category 1, the lack of a short-term impact associated with efforts to increase the supply of STEM women, and Category 2, the top barriers that restrict STEM women from applying for and accepting new jobs. Our research and analysis indicates that there are two more major categories of factors that inhibit STEM women from changing jobs. Those factors will be covered in Category 3, the corporate cultural frustrators that discourage STEM women from being recruited into new jobs, and Category 4, biases against women in the hiring process of high-tech firms.

CATEGORY 3 — The corporate cultural frustrators That Discourage STEM Women From Being Recruited Into New Jobs

Even if STEM women were to overcome the barriers (highlighted in Category 2) that inhibit them from switching jobs and companies, they still face the reality that they have to work every day in a corporate culture that is not friendly to them. This fear of having to work under a repressive corporate culture directly discourages some from applying to high-tech firms.

Most large tech firms and almost all tech startups operate under what we call in the Silicon Valley a “bro-culture” or “hacker-culture.” This male-dominated culture celebrates the “male-like behaviors” that typify how extremely close male friends or brothers would act. A bro-culture has many components that may frustrate STEM women, including: it frequently objectifies women; it encourages typically male behaviors like all-night hackathons; binge drinking; cursing; and even rating the women new hires numerically on a “hottie list.”

A male-dominated culture restricts the recruiting of STEM women because many feel it blatantly discriminates against them or treats them as second-class citizens. Executives at many tech firms haven’t shown a willingness to even acknowledge that they have a male culture, and they certainly haven’t shown the interest in changing it to a more gender-neutral approach. The most they seem willing to do is to add a few “women-friendly” benefits like paid maternity leave and work-at-home options.

Most high-tech executives have failed to acknowledge that a male-oriented culture discourages women from applying for jobs, and it also frustrates women when they must work under this male culture. This lack of executive action seems to come from the fact that tech leaders seem to believe that this “hacker culture” actually contributes more to the firm’s success than the corresponding damage that it causes to STEM-women employees and potential applicants. Yes, we acknowledge that any corporate culture is hard to change, but the fact remains that a “neutral culture” is required if women are to fit in and thrive.

The Top Six Corporate Culture Factors That Discourage the Recruiting of Women

When STEM women begin to consider a job at a new company, they can become instantly discouraged when they think about the difficulties that they will have in operating under a new male-oriented culture. The cultural frustration factors are listed with the highest impact frustration factors appearing first.

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  1. The objectification of women — many high-tech cultures do little to discourage males from objectifying, staring at, and even flirting with women. And because some “geeks” have weak interpersonal skills, this objectification at high-tech firms may be less than subtle. An overall aversion to rules of any kind and generally minimal supervision at tech firms means that employees that act inappropriately to women are seldom called out, or punished for their bad behaviors. In some cases, male supervisors may even encourage it.
  2. The impostor syndrome — in some tech firms, especially startups, the male culture is so strong that women are forced to change everything in order to look and act like they fit in. They literally call themselves “imposters,” because they have to change their behavior, their management style, their looks, and even their language to avoid any hint of femininity. The thought of having to continuously act differently as an imposter by itself is enough to discourage some women from even considering a job at a firm with a dominant male culture.
  3. Women are not perceived as leaders — in many high-tech cultures, aggressiveness and risk-taking are seen as desirable leadership characteristics. As a result, many STEM women who lack these aggressive characteristics will not be viewed as either current or potential leaders during the recruiting process. Once women realize that they may never be perceived as leaders, they may change their minds and drop out of the hiring process or reject any job offer.
  4. The prominence of male-oriented employee interests — a culture that celebrates predominantly male employee interests, both on and off the job, may frustrate STEM women. Employee interest areas like video gaming, science fiction, comics, constant competition, and military analogies may frustrate women. The thought of having to pretend that they share the same interests and hobbies over long periods of time may cause them to reconsider any initial thought of a job move.
  5. Different approaches to team collaboration — women often collaborate in a manner completely different than men. As a result, they may become disenchanted with the thought of joining a corporate culture that encourages male collaborative activities that make them uncomfortable. These might include team drinking, attending events like Comic-Con, staying up all night, hackathons, or holding informal off-site team collaboration gatherings that are not family friendly.
  6. The use of male-dominated terminology — high-tech firms have been known to use and encourage what women would consider to be male-oriented terminology. This practice can be illustrated with common high-tech words/phrases like brogrammer, bromance, drop the ball, ninja, and hacker. In addition, actions like high-fiving, smoking cigars, and boasting behavior can further make it difficult for women to believe that they can fit in. Having to learn and understand male-oriented language can be a major frustrator for potential women applicants.

This concludes the corporate culture frustrators section. The following final category includes factors that restrict the recruiting of STEM women as a result of biases that frequently occur within high-tech hiring processes. 

CATEGORY 4 — Hiring process biases that hinder the recruiting of women

As experts in recruiting STEM women, we would be the first to admit that many of the components in the typical high-tech hiring and promotion process are biased against women. Though not all are intentional, the reality is that the sourcing, resume screening, interview, and finalist selection processes in most tech firms contain at least a partial bias that lower STEM-women’s chances of getting a new job. Every firm is different of course, but our research has revealed a number of biases that are part of almost all corporate recruiting and promotion processes. These potential major biases are listed below with the highest-impact bias factors appearing first.

  1. Bias in the assessment of “fit”  almost all high-tech firms from startups to the largest firms have some sort of assessment step to determine what is known as fit (i.e. do they fit in with the rest of the employees). The fit assessment is problematic for women because a failed “fit assessment” means the instant rejection of the candidate. Women, innovators, diverse individuals, and anyone who “acts differently” are screened out at this assessment stage because their resumes and their interviews make them appear to be different than the average (male) employee.
  2. Resume screening bias against women — the most obvious bias occurs when recruiters or hiring managers make assumptions and use stereotypes when they see that a resume is from a woman. The negative bias can begin almost immediately because the resumes of women are often presented in a softer style and format. The bias may continue because women often include less-aggressive content and they brag less about their accomplishments in their resumes. Even the keyword search can be biased against women, if the keywords selected lean toward the experience and the terminology only used by men. And finally, some of the work experience that women have occurs outside the corporate environment. This “soft” non-corporate experience may be discounted even though the same skills were used and the same results were achieved.
  3. The interview process itself may be biased — having mostly men conducting and participating in interviews may indicate to women that this firm has a male-dominated culture, which may cause them to prematurely drop out. Behaviors and the body language of women that are observed by males during interviews may result in them getting significantly lower (or higher) interview scores, even though they provided the same quality of answers as male candidates. It is also not an unusual for interviewers to ask women completely different questions than those that are posed to men. Our research has revealed that STEM women brag less about themselves and their accomplishments during interviews. They also focus on different things; for example, men tend to talk about the results of their work, while in contrast women tend to talk about business processes. And finally, because of family issues, women may be less available for the required number of multiple interviews, which may cause them to drop out of the hiring process. Unless the recruiting function is aware of each of these potential biases, a larger percentage of women candidates will be rejected at the interview stage.
  4. Bias during sourcing — many of the most frequently used sourcing or prospect-identification approaches contain a subtle bias against women. Obviously, employee referrals can be biased if men only refer men. If you have primarily male sourcers, they will likely only focus on male-oriented Internet/social media sites like GitHub and DICE. Males may not even consider women dominated sites like Pinterest. Unless each source that is used has been quantifiably assessed for a bias against qualified STEM women, few of them will be offered an interview.
  5. Creating an offer that meets the needs of women — most firms fail to identify the job acceptance criteria that STEM women need before they will accept an offer. If you don’t meet each of STEM womens’ needs in an offer, they will simply stay where they are. Because STEM women are different (as is anyone who is diverse), if you want a high offer acceptance rate, you must personalize your offers for each individual STEM woman (as it should be for all top candidates). This becomes a problem because the standard offer is undoubtedly sculpted to the needs of most STEM men. Not personalizing the offers will result in a higher percentage of rejection in the offers made to women.
  6. A bias toward active prospects — as mentioned previously, STEM women have many mental barriers that convince them not to actively look for or apply for to a position that they are qualified for. That means that the majority of STEM women act like passive prospects. This consequently means that they can’t be found using the prevalent active approaches like job boards, career fairs, and newspaper ads. Unless high-tech recruiters focus on direct recruiting, it is unlikely that a recruiter’s candidate slates will include many women.
  7. Onboarding — even the onboarding process that occurs after they are hired may be designed to meet the needs of men. STEM women may be more reluctant to ask questions or raise issues during onboarding. Because they fear failure and lack confidence, they may start out making more errors and it may also take more time for them (as opposed to men) to reach their minimum expected level of productivity.

Final Thoughts

It’s frustrating knowing that senior executives at tech firms almost universally appear to believe that, even though they are overwhelmingly male, they can still understand the barriers and the frustrators limiting the recruiting of STEM women. We find this assumption is arrogant, and as a result, we encourage tech firms to take the next step and shift toward a data-driven and more scientific approach that can accurately identify the barriers, cultural frustrators, and the biases that prevent women from being equally represented among the recruits at high-tech firms. On the positive side, we would also like to point out that Google clearly stands out among high-tech firms because it has already shown some success in improving the retention and promotion of women by using our recommended data-driven approach.

Note to corporate executives and recruiting leaders — If for some reason you are not convinced that we have accurately identified the factors that inhibit the recruiting of STEM women, we encourage you to conduct your own surveys and market research. With your own list of inhibiting factors, you can then proceed to developing tools and actions that can minimize most if not all of these inhibiting factors. Incidentally, during our analysis we found that for nearly every negative factor we discovered, there was a way to minimize its negative impact against STEM women. Those positive actions and tools will be covered in a future article on

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website and on He lives in Pacifica, California.


Trena Luong is an experienced recruiter and manager currently partnering with Dr. John Sullivan on several projects including: How to Recruit STEM Women, Recruiting Best Practices, and Metrics. During her two-plus years of experience in human resources, she worked in all areas of recruiting full cycle recruiting, placing direct hires and temporary candidates in various positions. She has also worked in (organization) management, and HR consulting. With a tremendous lack of diversity in tech in the Silicon Valley, she is focused toward recruiting STEM women into key impacting jobs (engineering, sales, customer service, design, and C level), identifying the barriers that STEM women have in each phase of a recruiting process.


5 Comments on “Revealing the Factors That Restrict the Recruiting of STEM Women (Part 2 of 2)

  1. This article series makes some claims that are intriguing. My coworker asked me to read your article and give my thoughts. But I have not found where you describe your methodology. You say research based but where is the data? Am I missing this in a link I did not see? It is very negative and not quite what I have found myself but it makes me curious. I am a woman engineer who now is working on crowdsourcing apps for recruiting problems. Many companies try very hard to recruit STEM women. Also, women are capable of aggressive and why is hacker only for men? Is this all from one survey? Is your data available online in usable format? Did you control correlations like age? How big was sample size? Thank you.

    Susan Li
    Senior Programmer Analyst

  2. I echo Sue’s questions. Your factors and biases seem primarily based on generalizations, casual observations and stereotypes. (ie…’geeks’ don’t have interpersonal skills) And as I mentioned in a comment after your last article, I don’t see how any of the factors and biases you listed are actually specific to STEM women.

    Like Sue, I’d really like to know more about your research methods…

  3. Dr. Sullivan,

    Thank you for responding. To clarify my position, I do think this work is important that you did. There are still some problem with how STEM women are perceived. I think also that there are some advantages. From what I see with our clients I think many large companies make the extra effort to attract STEM women. This has also been my personal experience. But always room for improvement. Thank you and Ms. Luong for taking time to write an interesting article.

    Susan Li
    Senior Programmer Analyst

  4. Hi Dr. Sullivan,

    Thank you for the response and I hope you enjoying your vacation. I understand your goal is to make a list of barriers STEM women might face when applying for positions with Tech companies. However, I question whether your approach was truly ‘scientific’ or just some observations you gathered during surveys you created and administered on your own. I also question the broad and/or vague generalizations you used in support of identifying the barriers, for instance “many high-tech cultures do little to discourage males from objectifying, staring at, and even flirting with women.”

    When reading articles like this, I would like to see results based on facts and not anecdotes. It is hard to go to a business leader and say that the reason companies are having trouble recruiting STEM women is because men ‘high-five’ too much in the workplace and companies expect female STEM new hires to prove themselves in the workplace (as they do with all new hires).

  5. Well I thought my comment had been posted yesterday but I guess not. Thank you for clarifying Dr. Sullivan. However, I don’t see where your clarification is really stated upfront and that is misleading to readers.

    Also I know that many if not most high tech start-ups/small companies are populated with Gen Y males. And valid research says that Gen Y is much more inclusive than previous generations — read Boomers/Gen X. They are used to having women friends and viewing them as equals. So I question your comments on what seems to be “female hostile” work environments.

    Anecdotal to be sure, but I wrote in another blog that males need to take more responsibility and share child-rearing with their wives. I got BLASTED by numerous Gen Y males very upset saying that they and their friends are very involved with their kids and sharing responsibility of child raising. They don’t view women as the ones responsible. They saw how little their fathers (Boomers) spent with family and didn’t take responsibility for their children and Gen Y has vowed not to repeat that behavior.

    I give this as an example to show that Gen Y males see female roles very differently today. And your article does not reflect this.

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