Women account for only 24% of all those working in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) roles worldwide. In other words, the ‘hard’ sciences would benefit from greater diversity. And so would organizations! So how do we break down the barriers and explode gender stereotypes?
You’ll be familiar with this rather shocking number: 85% of the jobs that will exist in 2030 don’t exist yet. But did you know that the majority of these jobs will be in STEM subjects? Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics account for “70% of the most in-demand skills” explains the Les femmes au cœur de l’économie (Women at the heart of the economy) report submitted to the French government in February 2020 by Chiara Corazza, Managing Director of The Women's Forum for the Economy & Society. And this is the point at which an acute issue arises, because women account for only 24% of professionals working in STEM roles worldwide, only 35% of students and only 1 in 5 graduates across Europe.
So why is this gender profile so skewed?
“There are several explanations,” says Hélène Chahine, Executive Director of the CGénial Foundation, which is partnered by Saint-Gobain and encourages young people to pursue careers in science and technology. “Gender bias is still very prevalent in schools and in family settings. Words like care, family and literature are readily associated with women, while leadership, career and tech immediately conjure up male imagery.” So there’s a lot of work to be done on deconstructing attitudes so that girls can also consider and embark on careers in science or become coding ninjas or serial engineers.”
So how do we actually do that?
Here are 7 practical ways forward inspired by initiatives implemented by the CGenial Foundation to promote female leadership in STEM careers.
1/ Promote inspirational careers for women
Whether you look in classrooms or family homes, gender stereotyping around STEM careers is still clear to see. Nothing breaks through these preconceptions more effectively than bringing students face-to-face with the scientific community. These out-of-school interactions allow girls to associate themselves more easily with STEM opportunities by meeting role models and hearing about inspirational career journeys.
2/ Set quotas and quantified targets for gender inclusivity in science and technology careers
To promote greater gender diversity in the so-called ‘hard’ sciences, Chiara Corazza, Managing Director of The Women's Forum for the Economy & Society, recommends the introduction of “a quantified target of 40% representation by girls in public- and private-sector STEM universities and graduate schools by 2025, backed by financial incentives conditional on progress towards this goal.” Another option now being considered in France by the Haut Conseil à l’Egalité entre les femmes et les hommes (High Council for Gender Equality) is to impose a 40% membership quota for women on corporate executive and management committees. The German government is thinking in the same direction, and planning to impose quotas for gender inclusivity on management committees and in the country’s largest companies.
3/ Make the move from STEM to STEAM
We have recently seen the emergence of a new acronym: STEAM. The addition of the letter A refers to Arts, and to the wider issues around not only creativity, but also social and societal commitment. Promoted by UNESCO, the STEAM method is an effective way of attracting women into scientific careers using an interdisciplinary approach. This is already the case in a number of engineering graduate schools that offer dual study programs and/or academic partnerships with other institutions, such as the École Polytechnique in France, which provides the highest level of engineering education, and Les Gobelins, the prestigious school for the visual arts. More practical and motivational, this new gateway provides the opportunity to move beyond pure science to work on the basis of projects and solutions.
4/ Develop STEM networks for women
WiT (Women in Tech), Réseaux Industrielles and WomenTech Network in the USA... In the corporate world, women are coming together and engaging in initiatives to raise awareness of issues around gender diversity in STEM careers in an attempt to move beyond preconceived ideas. Some support programs are also in place to help women develop their leadership skills and their ability to assert themselves and their role. Impersonator syndrome, feelings of being unworthy of a new appointment, work/life balance... Mentoring initiatives and company networks are designed to break this chain of self-censorship, which occurs on many different levels, but is particularly common among women in engineering roles.
5/ Raise teacher awareness of what STEM careers really are
More and more engineering, IT and other major companies are hosting visits to production facilities and/or R&D departments to raise school awareness of corporate culture. The aim of these initiatives is to make teaching staff more aware of career opportunities, particularly in tech industries. These bridges between industry and schools encourage interaction and help deconstruct certain received wisdoms about STEM careers, at the same time as highlighting the associated challenges, particularly in terms of recruitment and gender diversity.
6/ Learn to code at an early age
“It all begins at a very early age!” In her report, Chiara Corazza advocates for developing computer science and coding in schools. In France, the CGénial Foundation has put this concept into practice itself through its ‘Yes, We Code’ project. Since 2017, it has been helping 10–17-year-olds and their teachers to set up digital projects by providing a kit of connected objects, including programmable cards, sensors and accessories. The same approach has been adopted in the UK with the Code Created Coding Workshops for Schools ‘Digital Objects’ scheme and in Canada with the kidscodejeunesse program. All these approaches promote collective intelligence and creativity in ways that exclude any suggestion of gender specificity. And they work!
7/ Ensure gender diversity in AI development teams
Did you know? Algorithms are biased. The fact is that the vast majority of these lines of code that are increasingly structuring our world are written by men, because only 15% of all the data scientists in the world are women. It’s a lack of diversity that is having serious consequences. Here’s an example... A study conducted in 2018 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that although facial recognition is 99% reliable in men... it throws up a 35% error rate for dark-skinned females. So now more than ever, gender diversity in AI development is essential if we are to develop new gender-neutral technologies. Looking beyond a better gender balance in recruitment, a report by French non-profits Politiqu'elles and Social Builder points to “the importance of examining the datasets on which AI developments will be based and conducting gender audits of these data to encourage data de-biasing.”
This issue is urgent, because according to Chiara Corazza's report, the skills shortage in these professions could rise to nearly 1 million vacancies this year in the European Union alone. Training women in these careers therefore means supporting not only national economic growth, but also the creation of a more inclusive world.
Crédits photos : Maksim Shmeljov/Shutterstock et Plataa/Shutterstock