Comparing the experiences and perceptions of women in STEM professions in the United States with their European counterparts, the Gender Scan survey revealed striking similarities and key differences.
By Claudine Schmuck, Managing Director, Global Contact and Vitória Acerbi, Program Manager, Gender Scan
Everyday life experience and numerous studies show that there is an issue regarding the experiences and satisfaction of women in STEM professions. Career progression, workflow organization, and policies regarding family life, as well as sexism in the workplace, and the lack of gender balance are major challenges. Yet, precise quantitative data to determine the percentages of women concerned by these questions, as well as qualitative data to know which alternatives they would prefer to improve their situations, remain lacking.
To help answer these questions, Gender Scan has conducted a global survey on these subjects and researched perceptions to enable analysis and comparisons between various regions of the world. Launched in 2008, Gender Scan remains the only biennial survey that provides facts and figures on gender balance in STEM — from education to employment.
In this article, we compare our data concerning women working in STEM sectors in America with women working in STEM sectors in Europe. For methodological purposes, it should be highlighted that the thoroughness of the analysis is limited by the sizes of the samples. In 2021, the total number of respondents in the United States resulted in a 5.4% margin of error, whereas that of Europe was 1.5%. Therefore, we can only formulate a hypothesis when interpreting the U.S. results. Considering these margins of error, some similarities and differences stand out when we compare numbers in the U.S. and Europe. Let us have a look at them and examine the realities they indicate for women working in STEM sectors across the North Atlantic.
Similarities: gender balance policies, parental support mechanisms, and remote work
In general, the results of the survey are more convergent than divergent between the U.S. and Europe. The greatest similarities concern the perception of female STEM workers regarding gender-balance policies in their companies. About half of female respondents (48% in both regions) are aware of their organizations’ efforts concerning the issue, but a third of them (32% in America and 36% in Europe) are not aware of any internal policies. In addition, when we asked why, in their view, employers undertake action in favor of gender balance, the top motivations identified by respondents were concerns about image (94% of female responses in the U.S., 95% in Europe), corporate social responsibility (80% in the U.S., 85% in Europe), the wish to attract women onto their teams (80% in America, 66% in Europe), and legal obligations (70% in America, 86% in Europe).
Despite a certain skepticism when it comes to the companies’ motivations for these policies, the overall view of women regarding action on gender balance where they work can be described as positive. Eighty-three percent of American women respondents said there is an internal network of women promoting gender equality in the company, in comparison with 55% of Europeans. This difference of almost 30 percentage points shows that the emphasis on networking seems to be more present in the U.S. than in Europe, as explored later in this article.
Furthermore, 76% of American respondents declared that there are men who support gender equality in their companies, versus 45% of Europeans. Other elements in that regard have more similar proportions of respondents between the two regions, such as strong commitment from the executive management on gender balance (63% in the U.S., 74% in Europe), awareness raising in favor of gender balance (75% in the U.S., 72% in Europe), and a department dedicated to gender equality (57% in the U.S., 64% in Europe).
Another aspect examined by the survey where there are strong similarities between the U.S. and Europe are the low use levels of parental support policies. We asked respondents whether such policies exist in their companies and whether they actually use them. While these parental support policies are formally in place and known about in both geographical areas, low use levels may indicate that there are barriers in the culture of the company discouraging employees to make real use of them. Sanctions against those who use them may range from exclusion from promotions, or from delegation of tasks, or projects of responsibility. Although 88% of female workers with a family in the U.S. and 83% in Europe know they can take paid maternity leave, only 38% of them in the U.S. and 43% in Europe have actually taken it on the occasion of a birth.
Similarly, even though 69% of American and 90% of European female respondents with at least one dependent at home indicated they have the right to be absent for family reasons, only 13% of Americans and 29% of Europeans have actually benefited from it at work. Despite such low use levels, however, the fact that more attention has been given to the adoption of these policies, at least formally, generates a relatively high level of satisfaction. Seventy-three percent of American respondents and 65% of European respondents declared they are satisfied with the mechanisms of parental support offered by their companies. The COVID-19 crisis, which increased the importance of remote work, has also had a positive impact on those women in STEM whose jobs allowed them to work from home in a “comfortable” environment, making it easier to balance professional and family life.
Indeed, female STEM “white collars” on both sides of the Atlantic seem to be content with remote work. Eighty-nine percent of Americans and 75% of Europeans declared, in 2021, that they would prefer to continue working remotely after the pandemic ceased to demand it for safety reasons. Only 4% of Americans and 13% of Europeans said they would like to come back to their previous office routines.
Although they value the practice of teleworking, they also point to improvements they would like to see in remote working schemes. On this subject, reactions in both the U.S. and Europe are similar. Forty-four percent of Americans and 45% of Europeans responding would like to have the right to disconnect; 44% of Americans and 34% of Europeans would like to limit the number of videoconferences per day; and 28% of Americans, along with 46% of Europeans, would like the company to keep some face-to-face meetings.
“Greater consistency in championing flexible work arrangements without sacrificing your career.”
United States, woman, 31-45 years old, manager/engineer
“Develop flextime parameters. The challenge with this is no one respects it. I normally am on continuous conference calls, with no break, even when I block my calendar for lunch.”
United States, woman, over 45 years old, employee
“More work on HeForShe type outreach. Many men feel that it’s a zero-sum game, so if women are gaining, men are losing.”
United States, woman, over 45 years old, manager/engineer
“Better management, as managers seem uninvolved with general members. Being clear what the expectations are of work time and organization for the next few months, so employees can plan.”
United States, woman, less than 30 years old, manager/engineer
Main differences: flexible work organization, career management, and sexism
Eighty-eight percent of female STEM workers in both regions declared themselves to be satisfied with their work organizations. Once again, we attribute this to the flexibility given by the concerns surrounding COVID-19, because this equal proportion in satisfaction hides major differences in the levels of use of flexible work arrangements. While 56% of Americans have benefited from occasional or regular remote work, only 21% of them have had such an advantage in a regulated scheme. In Europe, companies seem to have a greater level of institutionalization of remote work, as proportions are 31% and 42%, respectively. Americans seem to make slightly more use of flexible working hours, 41% versus 36%. Yet, at 33% versus 6%, Europeans are far more likely to have time savings accounts — a benefit that offers greater flexibility in managing working hours, both for businesses and employees and enhances work/life balance — than Americans.
It is striking that, when we look at the open answers concerning the question, “Which measure would you like to see developed as priority to improve your work organization?,” Americans seem to struggle a bit more than their European counterparts. Twenty-eight percent of them (versus 24% of Europeans) asked for more flexible hours; 18% (versus 12%) asked for more gender balance; and 17% (versus 10% of Europeans) asked for a better management organization. The only measure more demanded by Europeans (32%) than Americans (18%) is facilitated remote work.
At first glance, one could think this indicates that the lack of contractual regulation of remote work in the U.S. does not hinder employees from actually working from home, while the implementation of remote work within the framework of contracts in Europe does not allow workers to telework as much as they would like to. However, our qualitative data point us to another direction. This difference seems likely to reflect the fact that regulating the implementation of remote work in Europe renders it more satisfying to employees, so much so that they ask for more of it.
The demands of Europeans to improve their career management expressed this discontent very clearly:
“A career coach that gets involved with each team directly. Or a manager that supports his/her workforce to achieve more and sponsors his/her team to progress in their careers… Instead of holding them back or downplaying their abilities.”
Ireland, woman, 31-45 years old, technician/associate professional
“Information on the possible evolutions and jobs available in my company, HR support for the career would be nice. There is never anything, HR only manages recruitment and resignations, not employee follow-up and it’s up to the employee to take care of everything…”
Germany, woman, less than 30 years old, manager/engineer
“More training courses and time to be able to develop transversal skills that strengthen my professional level in the long-term.”
Spain, woman, 31-45 years old, technician
“More training on the latest technical developments in our sector, technology watch periods arranged during working hours.”
Poland, woman, less than 30 years old, employee
Legal recognition and contractual regulations of remote work set standards, leveling the playing field between work at home and work in the office. They also define hours when people must be reachable and those when they cannot be contacted, easing the tension that physical distance and online connection sometimes create around availability. Thus, regulated remote work generates a degree of autonomy for workers and a results-oriented focus in companies that is highly valued by European women.
Meanwhile, what many American testimonials indicate is quite different. Unregulated remote work leads to situations where the work performed remotely is not as acknowledged as the work done in the office, making women accumulate remote work after work in person. There are also cases where companies favor workers most often physically present at the company (the “unencumbered,” mostly men) in relation to those whose hard work — done remotely — is not so visible. Not to mention the expectation of some managers for employees working remotely to be on call almost permanently and answer or solve problems right away, even outside expected working hours (which are often not explicitly defined).
Regarding career management, the situation is quite the reverse: American women, in general, seem to fare better. Sixty-five percent of them are satisfied with this aspect of their work lives, as opposed to 48% of Europeans, proportions that are low when compared with the above-mentioned levels of satisfaction on parental support policies and work organization. The use levels of the various processes of career management explain these low satisfaction levels. Forty-five percent of women in STEM in the U.S. benefit from an internal network of women in the company, in contrast with only 11% of Europeans. Twenty-eight percent of American female STEM workers have access to personal development training, as opposed to 19% of Europeans. Twenty percent of Americans made use of mentoring and coaching opportunities to advance their careers, an advantage boasted by only 11% of Europeans.
“Raising these issues could result in me being labeled ‘that woman’ and excluded from future promotional opportunities due to fears of a perceived risk to male management.”
United States, woman, over 45 years old, manager/engineer
“Scared of retaliation, the mindset that ‘that’s how it is in the oilfield.’”
United States, woman, less than 30 years old, manager/engineer
“I did not use the company’s alert procedure because I doubt that it is effective and especially, I think it is better not to make a fuss. Sometimes you can be penalized more when you are a victim than when you are guilty.”
France, woman, over 45 years old, engineer/manager
“No real evidence that it works. Complaints already filed by other colleagues (on the same person) and remained unresolved. Management concerned, so there is no action from HR.”
Belgium, woman, 31-45 years old, manager/engineer
Finally, another issue where significant differences arise is the experience of sexism at work. Women in the U.S. struggle with sexism and harassment at work in significantly higher proportions than women in Europe. While in the U.S. 55% of women working in STEM have suffered sexist behaviors at work and 37% have suffered moral harassment, in Europe these numbers are 38% and 25%, respectively — differences of more than 10 percentage points. Moreover, twice as high a proportion of American women as European women have suffered sexual harassment (13% versus 6%), and 20% more Europeans declared they have never experienced anything of the sort at work (51% versus 31% of Americans). Numbers of women who have witnessed gender-based discrimination at work are also lower in Europe. Sixty-one percent of American women, in contrast to 49% of Europeans, have witnessed episodes of sexism at work; 37% (versus 32% in Europe) have witnessed moral harassment; and 13% of women in the U.S. versus 9% in Europe have witnessed sexual harassment in the workplace. This may be due to stronger implementation of regulations and sanctions in place to prevent and punish this kind of behavior as well as the difficulty, indicated by many Americans in their testimonials, to make formal complaints in the frame of Title IX, the U.S. law that bans sex-based discrimination and sexual assault and harassment in federally funded K-12 schools and universities.
Similar dynamics as to the situation of parental support policies seem to be at play when it comes to alert procedures against sexism and sexual harassment at work: They do exist, but very few employees resort to them, mainly for fear of reprimand and possible backlash in their careers.
Among our respondents, only 9% of women in the U.S. and 3% in Europe went to the department in their companies responsible for accompanying gender-based violence and discriminations. On the other hand, 36% of women in the U.S. and 35% in Europe told their colleagues about the episode. Twenty-eight percent of respondents in the U.S. and 20% in Europe fell back on other women for support and advice. Twenty-two percent of American STEM employees and 33% of Europeans looked to their relatives on the occasion.
More data coming soon – the Gender Scan survey in India
If you liked these data and insights, stay tuned to Gender Scan. SWE has commissioned a similar study on India, so share this opportunity: swe.emp2023.genderscan.org/. The more responses we have, the more robust the numbers obtained therefrom, and the more precise the panorama on the working lives of women and men in STEM.
Editor’s Note: For consistency in this article, America and U.S. are used interchangeably, referring to the continental U.S. Here are brief definitions of terms that may not be as familiar: Time savings account is a benefit for both businesses and employees that offers greater flexibility in managing working hours and enhances work/life balance. Psychological harassment is similar to verbal harassment, but it is more covert and consists of exclusionary tactics such as withholding information or gaslighting. Moral harassment refers to workplace behavior that is abusive and is a recurrent practice of humiliation, mockery, isolation, persecution, and psychological torture.
Claudine Schmuck, founder and managing director of Global Contact, launched the global edition of Gender Scan in 2016. A graduate of the Institute of Political Science in Paris and Columbia University in New York, she is highly valued by the public sector as an expert for the French Ministry of Economy and Finance and the European Commission. She has contributed to international program developments for IT and media companies pertaining to new information and communication technologies. She taught new information and communication technologies for 11 years at the Sorbonne University and is the author of Women in STEM Disciplines, published by Springer in 2017.
Vitória Acerbi is the Gender Scan program manager, responsible for data analysis and research on gender equality in education and in the workplace. Having studied at the Institute of Political Science in Paris and at the University of Salamanca in Spain, she has worked in research networks, consulting firms, and international organizations in Europe and Latin America and has published numerous pieces, including articles and book chapters.