Blog > Debates > How far are we from gender equality in STEM?

How far are we from gender equality in STEM?

We speak to women in STEM to discover what can be done to inspire the next generation.

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14.4%. That’s the percentage of women who are currently employed in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) in the UK, according to WISE’s report from August 2015.

The very first International Day of Women and Girls in Science took place last month and while “progress towards any goal to have more women in STEM is very slow”; it’s positive initiatives such as these which can have a significant impact , according to Gillian Arnold, Chair of BCSWomen:

The sooner we get to 30% women in STEM, the easier it will be. There are lots and lots of good initiatives out there, and there is some very appealing best practice. It is now down to company leaders to ensure that there is true equality of opportunity for all.

Something that Helen Wollaston, Chief Executive of the WISE Campaign agrees with: “We want to see the percentage grow to at least a 30% because this would be the tipping point. When any minority group is a third of the total, they are no longer perceived as a minority and the culture naturally feels and becomes more inclusive.”

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What needs to be done to increase numbers in the short-term?

Positive discrimination is often discussed as an option. However, Heather Williams, Director and Founder of ScienceGrrl, believes this is not the answer: “It undermines the women promoted, who are viewed as being in positions by virtue of their gender, not ability. It also runs completely counter to our drive for fair access to careers. Gender-specific labs are also unnecessary and potentially harmful to science – diverse teams produce better results, as their approaches draw on ideas from a broader range of perspectives.”

For Anne-Marie Imafidon, co-founder of STEMettes, two things are necessary: “I would like to have a digital literacy test for our MPs. I think it’s criminal that people who run the country don’t have a proper understanding of digital but are voting policies that affect us in technology. I also think that we need a stemette character in East Enders or any major soap, like a female coder you could see interact and do normal things, to normalise character.”

Helen Wollaston adds: “It isn’t just a numbers game. More women working in science, technology and engineering are in the public eye – we hear their voices on the radio, see them on our TV and computer screens and they feature disproportionally in industry awards. Being a woman in a male-dominated sector means you get noticed and if you are any good, you will be in great demand.”

According to Kirsten Bodley, Chief Executive of STEMNET, “we need to introduce young women to female role models working in STEM, enabling them to see the vast range of opportunities for brilliant careers open to them. That’s the most effective way to dispel persistent stereotypes which still inhibit them.”

Journalist and blogger Suw Charman-Anderson, who initiated Ada Lovelace Day in honour of influential women in STEM, highlights: “In an ideal world, women would be inspired by other women in positions across all managerial levels, but too many companies do not have women in senior jobs.

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Every organisation agrees that the perception of women in STEM has to improve. This will not only allow the current female workforce to progress but will also change the mind-set of the next generation.

Griselda Tobogo, Managing Director at Forward Ladies, recalls: “being one of the few girls in my peer group who studied physics, mathematics and chemistry myself, I ended up abandoning the dream of a life-long career in engineering due to various reasons – some of which related to the working environment and the prospects of progression within the industry, which is highly male-dominated and has a reputation of not being family friendly.”

For Gillian Arnold, “many women in STEM suffer from inequality of opportunity. Many are not even aware of it. It is only when women hit their 30s, do they realise that the fellas who started at the same time as them are making greater advances than they are. That is when we see the women question what is happening.”

She continues: “I think that the glass ceiling is made up of elements of unconscious bias, a lack of women at the top (who can help others up the steps), and apathy and inaction on the part of business leaders. This all needs to change if we are to make progress.” Ultimately, this progress will not only increase the numbers of women in STEM, but should also reduce the gender pay gap.

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With recent research showing that the gender pay gap exists before graduates join the workforce , equal pay continues to be a key area for improving the lives of women in STEM. “I am delighted to see that the largest companies will be expected to report on their gender pay gaps,” says Gillian Arnold, “but I would be even more delighted if the gender pay audit were required of every company and institution in the country.”

Suw Charman-Anderson also highlights that “we need more transparency around pay. Women and men, need to be able to easily compare and assess pay offers to make sure that they’re in line with the rest of the market. But we also need to reconsider certain HR practices which disadvantage women.”

She continues: “We have to make working conditions more attractive to women: we need to provide more flexible working options such as flexitime, job sharing and remote working, as well as better parental leave options (for mothers and fathers)”. Another point raised by several organisations is that women in STEM want and need to be made part of something bigger than their technical job descriptions.

Helen Wollaston, from the WISE Campaign, mentions: “girls and women want to feel they are making a contribution to something which matters to them. Describing the context of the job and the purpose of your business is more likely to attract their interest than the technical aspects of the work.

For ScienceGrrl, it’s a fact: “Women tend to think quite holistically about their work, so talking about what jobs involve, what work is done, with whom and where, and the difference it makes, could help paint a more vivid picture of what it is really like to work in STEM.”

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And there’s a lot to be inspired by in STEM! For one thing, according to Anne-Marie Imafidon and as Gillian Arnold confirms,  “women seem to be attracted to creative roles, though many are not aware of the true ‘creative’ content of STEM roles.”

Kirsten Bodley adds: “There are many fields in STEM that people do not necessarily consider as STEM, for instance a lot of marketing increasingly requires STEM skills.” On top of that, many new fields of STEM are emerging and could be the thing to inspire new talents: “Renewable energy production opens up an array of new technologies designed to reduce carbon emissions. It is an amazing field for growth. It’s the same for space and all areas digital. As more of our activity and commerce moves online there are roles that we couldn’t have imagined a decade ago, such as ‘ethical hacker’.”

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As awareness gradually builds, what else can inspire girls to take the leap into STEM careers? For Stemettes, it’s crucial to empower girls and women: “We’re running something called the Outbox incubator. It’s a tech incubator for 115 girls aged 11 to 22 from all over Europe. They spend some time here studying over the holidays to improve their confidence and learn skills to take back home.

A lot of them have interest in STEM but never could express it because at home or at school they are usually seen as weirdos for being interested in tech. Spending this summertime with people thinking alike has been a big confidence boost and helped change their mind-set.” Not only did the initiative help these young women, but it also allowed a few to launch their own start-ups and set foot into the professional world of STEM.

These girls are the new role models, and for Gillian Arnold, they do more than just inspire: “I encounter lots of people who are driving positive action campaigns to bring more women into the workforce, and to keep them there… They are the unsung heroines – the women who are making equality really happen.” How can we encourage structural change to make sure equality is here to stay?

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For BCSWomen, one solution to unite the positive forces: “At the BCS, we have brought together the leading 20 groups working for women in technology, but there are many more we could have invited to work with us. We believe that collectively, we can be more effective.”

It’s the messaging coming from the STEM industry that needs to evolve, claims Heather Williams: “Girls don’t need to change, but the cultural framework they’re growing up in certainly does. Science IS for everyone. If a young person is hearing, somehow, that their face doesn’t fit in STEM then that’s not anything to do with them, it is the message that’s wrong”.

But “unless the working environment is right for women, no amount of positive messages or role models going into schools will make much difference because even if you attract the women in, they are unlikely to stay”, says Helen Wollaston. She also adds: “It is harder to change culture, but until we do, we won’t get the gender balance we need in STEM.

There’s a lot that needs to be done to help reduce the gender inequalities in STEM in the country, but as all these organisations and STEM heroes strive to, change is possible. It will take time but the future’s bright for girls and women in STEM.

About the organisations:

  • BCSWomen (The Chartered Institute for IT) is a specialist group that provides networking opportunities for all BCS professional women working in IT around the world.
  • WISE Campaign promotes women in science, technology, engineering and maths, and advises organisations on how to create environments where women can do their best work and thrive.
  • ScienceGrrl is group of people who are passionate about celebrating women in science founded by Dr Heather Williams in 2012.
  • STEMettes “shows the next generation that girls do science, technology, engineering and maths too”. It was co-founded by Anne-Marie Imafidon, who holds the current world record for the youngest girl ever to pass A-level computing at 11. She was named one of the most influential women in IT in 2015.
  • STEMNET works with 95% of UK secondary schools to widen participation in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). All STEM Ambassadors receive training to work with young people and to challenge gender stereotypes.
  • Suw Charman-Anderson was named one of the “50 most influential Britons in technology” by The Daily Telegraph, she has also worked to gain recognition for other women in technological fields in 2009.
  • Forward Ladies was founded in 1999 to create an environment and community where women could feel heard, seen and able to upskill and develop themselves.

Are you part of the STEM workforce? Join the debate and tell us about your experience in the comments!

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