A brighter future beckons for women in STEM

Amid early signs that more women may be pursuing STEM education and jobs going forward, how do we keep the momentum going?

Female teacher, teaching team of girls how to build a robotic arm

There’s a general consensus that people who identify as women are still heavily under-represented in STEM education and jobs – but perhaps that is beginning to change.

In SThree’s STEM Youth Survey women comprised half of all respondents aged 18 to 30 who are interested, enrolled or active in STEM education or active in the STEM jobs market.

This positive result seems to buck the perceived trend and point to the possibility that more women will become actively involved in STEM in the future. This is not only good news for the quest to ensure wider gender equality in society but potentially could prove key to alleviating the chronic worldwide shortage of STEM talent in the longer term.

Regional differences

While this uplift among the young is encouraging, there’s still a fair way to go. Of those that responded to SThree’s 'How the STEM world works' research– covering a wide age range of people including the over-40s – only 17.74% of respondents identified as female.

Notably, though, the percentage of women varied significantly from one geographical region to another. For example, Singapore achieved a respectable 33%-plus and the US nearly 31%, but results fell to around 7% for Austria, with the UK and Japan sitting somewhere in between with just over 18%.

In part, these variations can be explained by a combination of differing levels of discrimination and cultural differences between countries according to Ayesha Iqbal, a senior member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and Lecturer in Engineering at the Bedford College Group.

A major issue remains. Women are still more likely to drop out of STEM roles early because they are discouraged or prevented from continuing in their jobs after marriage and children as home making is considered priority

Ayesha, who was STEM-educated and trained in Pakistan, says: “In Asian countries such as China, India and Pakistan, there were long-held gender-based stereotypes about STEM roles, such as ‘Medicine is for women and engineering is for men’.

"Yet, despite facing patriarchal behaviours and attitudes, girls in these regions are essentially outperforming boys in all fields today, as they are more focused, hardworking, ambitious and career-oriented than ever before. Subjects like maths and science are harder to study, therefore girls are outperforming boys in these subjects as well, which results in more girls in STEM.

“However, a major issue remains. Women are still more likely to drop out of STEM roles early because they are discouraged or prevented from continuing in their jobs after marriage and children as home making is considered priority.”

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Encouraging the upward trend

This ‘rolling erosion’ of females active in STEM disciplines creates a ‘leaky pipeline’ that’s pretty much a universal phenomenon across the globe.

So, how can we encourage, support, and nurture this gender levelling in STEM that appears to be emerging among younger age groups?

Ayesha points out that, while it is well-recognised that societies need to embrace and encourage girls in STEM as young as possible, starting at the primary school level and continuing throughout their education, she argues we need to look beyond schooling alone to attract and retain young females.

“Girls should be encouraged to take part in STEM-relevant extra-curricular activities too, such as robotics and coding camps, which often foster an interest in these disciplines.

This ‘rolling erosion’ of females active in STEM disciplines creates a ‘leaky pipeline’ that’s pretty much a universal phenomenon across the globe.

“Prejudices and stereotypes take a considerable amount of time to change but I believe putting a greater emphasis on engaging with the parents of girls in STEM education would really help to positively reshape societal attitudes to female participation.”

She asserts that achieving greater pay parity with men in STEM roles is also crucial to address, as the gender pay disparity is a major deterrent to females looking to enter and remain in those jobs.

Raising the bar

For Professor Georgina Harris, Dean of the Faculty of STEM at Arden University, a key change that could boost numbers is improving the quality of tuition in schools where, in the UK at least, there is often a shortage of teachers qualified to teach STEM.

“When teachers are addressing a subject, they don’t fully understand they understandably lack confidence and enthusiasm which, even if unintended, is transmitted to students making them less confident and interested in these subjects.”

A key change that could boost numbers is improving the quality of tuition in schools where, in the UK at least, there is often a shortage of teachers qualified to teach STEM.

This may disproportionately affect girls and young women choosing to study STEM subjects by compounding societal expectations and stereotyping already working against them, and evidence suggests numbers begin to fall away after the age of 14 in the UK.

Georgina says: “When females do study a STEM subject at school it definitely makes them more confident about choosing a STEM career too. So, we need to be attracting, and appropriately rewarding, talented people who are genuinely skilled in STEM fields to teach in our classrooms.”

Showcasing STEM careers

Georgina also feels it’s important to hold up the many highly successful women working at top levels in STEM as inspirational role models.

The prospects for any woman considering a role in STEM look particularly good.

“Women in STEM are often at the top of their game and more effort is needed to showcase their achievements and additionally to demonstrate to girls and young women what STEM jobs and careers actually look like in reality.”

Given the acknowledged shortage of talent in STEM – where companies are literally having to poach staff from each other to fulfil work contracts – the prospects for any woman considering a role in STEM look particularly good.

Georgina adds: “Companies and institutions need to recognise that encouraging women into STEM will lead to greater innovation because the more diverse their STEM workforce, the better it will be at creating and developing products and technologies that are relevant to a more diverse customer base – and ultimately that will make them more profitable.

“For me, success for women in STEM is about much more than achieving at least 50% female participation – it is about reaching a point where gender is no longer part of the conversation.”

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