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Diversity and inclusion

Improving soft skills crucial to keeping women in science, finds study

16 Aug 2022
Woman giving a presentation in a business meeting
Of wider importance Being good at soft skills such as teamwork, communication and resilience can be an important predictor of career success. (Courtesy: iStock)

Early-career women in science who spend time developing their “soft skills” see a boost in their self-confidence and likelihood to stay in work. That is according to a study carried out by sociologists in the US, which also finds that the COVID-19 pandemic may have led to a drop in soft skills among women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects (Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. 119 e2123105119).

Interpersonal skills such as teamwork, communication and resilience can be harder to teach than technical, cognitive and achievement-related abilities, often referred to as “hard skills”. Soft skills can, however, be important predictors of career success. Research has shown that due to structural and social barriers in STEM, particularly in male-dominated fields, women can struggle with high-status soft skills such as influencing colleagues and building strong strategic networks. Combined with lower levels of professional confidence, this leads to women leaving STEM fields at higher rates than men.

Julia Melin and Shelley Correll from Stanford University developed and evaluated a six-month online programme to improve the soft skills of women in the early stages of STEM careers. It involved providing 44 women at a US biotech company, each of whom had less than 10 years’ work experience, with virtual peer support, one-to-one career coaching and opportunities to develop professional skills. A control group of 200 early-career employees did not receive the online support. 

The study began in early 2020, which allowed the researchers to also assess the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on soft skills among early-career women. A survey measured participants’ self-assessments of their soft skills before and after the programme. 

Among early-career women in the control group, perceived soft skills dropped 3.5% compared with the pre-COVID-19 baseline. But those who took part in the online programme experienced a boost of more than 9% in their perceived soft skills. A year after the study, women in the support group were significantly more likely to still be working at the company. The soft-skill training also led to a much bigger rise in managers’ performance ratings, compared with those in the control group.

Given that issues around retention and advancement of women are not just limited to biotech, Melin told Physics World that their results are likely to apply across STEM fields including physics. Melin adds that she would now like to see STEM companies invest in professional development programmes for employees, especially for early-career women. “Programmes that harness the power of cohorts might be especially important for soft-skill development and ultimately retention,” she says. “Cohort programmes also seem promising for companies adopting hybrid or remote working models, since employees will have less frequent in-person interactions with their colleagues.” 

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