Women are key to closing the talent gap, report finds

A better gender balance in the workforce and top management and more women recruited to the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering, mathematics – at universities is the key to Danish technological advancement according to a new report by the Innovation Fund Denmark.

The representation of both men and women in STEM fields is paramount to developing inclusive technological solutions that do not perpetuate bias but create equal opportunities for all, the report says. Moreover, STEM companies are important drivers of economic growth through high productivity, innovation and export intensity.

However, Denmark’s record on gender equality is poor in general but also specifically in universities compared to comparable countries, the report warns. In female representation in academia, Denmark suffers from an extremely low retention rate, resulting in only one in five professors being a woman, compared to one in three in the United States, the report says.

“As international peers surge ahead, Denmark risks being left behind,” the report says.

“Women already comprise more than half of university graduates and their performance is on par or better than men across disciplines. However, women continue to be underrepresented, not only in leadership positions but also in areas that increasingly shape society,” the report says.

The report, Bridging the Talent Gap in Denmark: Insights from female representation in STEM, produced by McKinsey & Company, was presented in Copenhagen on 1 October.

Presentations were given by the Danish Minister of Higher Education and Science Tommy Ahlers and the European Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager and by representatives from Danish businesses and parliament and the event was closed by the Crown Princess Mary of Denmark.

But on Twitter, the communication director of the Innovation Fund Denmark, Pernille Rype, said: “We have invited many men from the top leadership of universities, businesses, organisations and among the political parties’ chairs, but it is the women that are coming – why is this so?"

In a joint article published in Berlingske, Kim Baroudy, director of McKinsey & Company, Eva Kjer Hansen, the Danish minister for fisheries and equal opportunities, and Peter Høngaard Andersen, managing director of the Innovation Fund Denmark, said the drop in the performance in the ‘gender index’ is a “challenge both for the private sector where one out of seven top leaders in major businesses are women and in the public sector where one out of three top leaders are women”.

They said in academia the low share of women professors means that if there is no acceleration in attempts to close the gender gap, it could take until 2064 to achieve gender balance among professors.

The McKinsey report revealed that among undergraduates at universities, only one in three students in the STEM fields are women and that this proportion has been unchanged since 2014.

STEM businesses are 40% more productive, with 40% higher production and 24% higher export income compared to the Danish average for businesses.

Reaching a gender balance in the recruitment to the natural sciences by 2030 would require between 15,000 and 20,000 more graduates but would contribute DKK6 billion (US$925 million) a year to the Danish gross national product due to the higher productivity in businesses dominated by STEM-educated staff, the report says.

While Denmark has historically been at the forefront of promoting gender equality, in the past few years it has fallen behind its peers who have accelerated measures to address gender imbalances, dropping from the top five of the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index in 2014 to number 14 in 2017 – despite other Nordic countries Norway, Sweden and Finland remaining in the top five. In leadership Denmark ranks at a mere 80 out of 144, the report says.

The report says there are four critical moments in women’s career journeys that are driving the gender imbalance in STEM. Not enough women are choosing STEM subjects at university, which the report says is influenced by “underlying stereotypes”. The problem is not the talent pipeline: it is sparking women’s interest in STEM, it says.

Attracting female STEM graduates to core STEM jobs such as engineering and software departments, which are dominated by men, especially in the private sector, is challenging, as are gender gaps in wages and working hours.

Women are set back in their STEM careers in terms of pay and other factors upon having children, a problem which is greater in the private sector. The path to the top, though, is more difficult in the public sector, where only one in 50 STEM women in STEM jobs make it to a management position, whereas (a still very poor rate of) one in 10 reach corresponding positions in the private sector.

Combat stereotypes, adapt communication

In its recommendations, the report suggests that parents and education institutions should combat debilitating stereotypes by using positive role models. Communication should also be “aligned with female affinities”, which has proven influential in inspiring the educational choices of young women.

“Effective strategies include changing the names of university courses to better reflect the purposes women seek to accomplish, adapting course content and creating an inviting physical environment,” the report says.

It calls on businesses to prioritise diversity among their staff and reduce bias in recruitment processes. Concrete measures include the use of gender-neutral language in job postings as well as blind techniques in application screening and a structured approach to conducting interviews.

It calls for the promotion of an inclusive work culture, centred on flexibility and equal treatment, and mentorship, sponsorship and talent programmes to support women’s advancement to top positions.

The report suggests the need for a debate on a legislative response in Denmark, which could include earmarked paternity leave, as possibly the most evidence-based intervention to consider.

“The challenge of promoting greater gender diversity in Denmark is multifaceted and requires broad stakeholder engagement. However, concrete interventions are available to effectively tackle it head on,” the report concludes.

Jens Riis Andersen, a McKinsey associate partner, and one of the many contributors to the report, said: "We will intervene at many levels from the playing tools of children to finding role models for girls who can mirror their aspirations, and to have a more inclusive work culture where childbirths and flexibility shall not be a hindrance for women’s careers.”

Høngaard Andersen said that the Innovation Fund Denmark is going to implement the recommendations of the report. "We will secure a more equal gender balance in the evaluation panels of the Fund and see to it that all communication from the Fund is free from gender bias,” he said.