Challenges for STEMM Leaders Across the World

October 3, 2022

Challenges For STEMM Leaders Across The World

STEMM is a label describing science and engineering occupations (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Medicine). Much has been written about the lack of gender and racial diversity of employees who make up the STEMM workforce. A powerful example is that between 2004 and 2014, more women earned bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering than men. But this appears to be another vivid case of disappearing women.

For this study, Zenger Folkman collected 360-degree evaluations on 122,000 leaders across the globe. We separated out the STEMM leaders by combining those in roles such as Engineering, Information Technology, Research, Product Development, Finance, and Accounting. In total, we identified 16,419 STEMM leaders compared to 57,706 non-STEMM leaders. Upon analyzing that data, we came to a startling conclusion. For non-STEMM leaders, we found that 36% of them were women, compared to our STEMM population, where only 25% were women.

You can review all of this research in the STEMM the Tide Leadership report by our partner, Arcadia, here.

Following that discovery, we went on to ask other questions.

  • Are STEMM leaders perceived as more or less effective than non-STEMM leaders?
  • Are female STEMM leaders perceived to be more or less effective than male STEMM leaders?

In previous research, we found that women across all roles were rated significantly more positively on our 360-degree assessment than males. Would this also be the case for leaders in STEMM? The data below shows the results.

After analyzing the graph below, the first observation is that both male and female STEMM leaders demonstrate lower overall leadership effectiveness (defined as the average competency percentile) than either male or female non-STEMM leaders. Bottom line: Overall, STEMM leaders are perceived to be less effective than their non-STEMM counterparts. It could be argued that the people in the STEMM academic disciplines and occupations hold their colleagues to a higher standard. That would constitute a “rater bias,” creating the overall lower effectiveness scores. The ratings from the non-STEMM colleagues appear to be consistent with those from the colleagues from STEMM disciplines, so we don’t believe that is the cause.

Secondly, in both the STEMM and non-STEMM populations, women are perceived to demonstrate higher overall leadership effectiveness than men, outperforming men by 53.2 points to 50.9 in overall leadership effectiveness in non-STEMM.

Thirdly, female leaders in STEMM roles have statistically significantly lower perceived leadership effectiveness than female leaders in non-STEMM roles (53.2 in non-STEMM to 48.6 in STEMM).

Non-STEMM Leaders are More Effective Overall Than STEMM Leaders

Strengths and Weaknesses of STEMM Leaders

What causes the overall lower ratings for leaders in the STEMM organizations? Using our most current dataset, we analyzed the effectiveness ratings on the 19 competencies measured in the Extraordinary Leader assessment. We compared STEMM leaders against other leaders. The analysis shows that STEMM leaders were rated significantly lower on 11 of the 19 competencies and significantly higher on two competencies.

Strengths and Weaknesses of STEMM leaders

Our educated guess is that if we had data from intelligence tests comparing STEMM leaders to other leaders, those in STEMM would score significantly higher. This observation is supported by the effectiveness ratings on Technical or Professional Expertise and Solving Problems and Analyzing Issues competencies. It is also equally likely that given the nature of the STEMM leaders’ weaker competencies, data from emotional intelligence tests (EQ) would show the opposite trend, and non-STEMM leaders would score higher.

On eleven critical leadership skills, STEMM leaders are rated as less effective. Those that stand out are:

  • Customer and external focus. Not understanding customers’ needs and concerns makes it difficult for a leader to understand where the business needs to go in the future.
  • Interpersonal skills such as Inspiring Others, Communicating, Developing Others, and Collaboration. These deficiencies distance these leaders from both their direct reports and their peers. In a fascinating study done by Kelley and Caplin (HBR, 1993) on the most productive scientists at Bell Labs, they found those with interpersonal skills tended to be much more successful.
  • Lower scores on Champions Change, Strategic Perspective, and Innovation paint a picture of leaders so focused on the technical aspects of their work that they fail to see the needed changes in everything else occurring around them. They are not recognizing the possibilities of their industry being disrupted.
  • Lower ratings on Setting Stretch Goals and Taking Initiative describes leaders unwilling to push boundaries.
  • Lower ratings on Learning Agility indicate that many of the STEMM leaders resist feedback from others and a willingness to make a personal change.

We wonder if staying abreast of the technology in the STEMM disciplines is so engrossing and demanding that it leaves little time and energy for the interpersonal and organizational requirements of leadership. Further, this immersion in the technology occurs in the formative years of a person’s higher education and career, when most patterns of social and emotional demeanor are set into personality traits. The consequence is that those in STEMM disciplines have a later start in becoming concerned about vital leadership issues. The average age of leaders in STEMM who participated in our leadership assessment and development process was 49.5 in comparison to the age of 46 for non-STEMM leaders.

Organizations inadvertently compound this by not providing impactful leadership development at a much earlier time for these leaders. They often assist by providing further technical education but fail to balance it with the other vital development required of an excellent leader.

—Jack Zenger

(This article first appeared on Forbes)

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