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Break the bias: how we can empower more women in STEM

On International Women’s Day there are calls for more to be done to increase female representation in STEM industries.

Break the bias: how we can empower more women in STEM

The founder of Women in Tech has called for more to be done to raise the profile of women in STEM in order to encourage young girls to consider qualifications and careers in STEM industries, and educate men about the value that they bring.

Her call comes after a new report revealed that the more women working in a STEM field the more likely it is to be perceived as a ‘soft science’. The report1 by US-based academic researchers highlights a concern that subjects perceived in this way were devalued by people, who saw them as being less rigorous, less trustworthy and less deserving of funding.

Ayumi Moore Aoki, founder of the global not-for-profit organisation that aims to empower girls and women and close the gender divide in STEM fields, agrees the bias against women has to be countered but primarily by increasing the levels of female participation.

She says: “Personally I don’t have experience of STEM disciplines with strong female representation being ‘devalued’ but I do know that UN and World Economic Forum statistics show that women are still under-represented in STEM roles globally and, on average, comprise less than 20% of people working in those disciplines.”

A growing divide

“And worryingly,” she asserts, “the gap between men and women in tech has grown over the past four decades. There were proportionately more women involved in tech in the 70s and 80s. As computer science became more economically important and powerful it attracted more men while women were increasingly marginalised.”

A major factor in female under-representation in STEM roles is what she calls the ‘leaky pipeline’ of girls and women flowing into STEM, which sees them being effectively steered from that path and gradually “falling away” as they progress their education and careers.

For example, in the US around 74% of young girls express interest in computer science and STEM fields but hold only 18% of computer science degrees and 26% of computing jobs. Ayumi points out In the UAE, women comprise 47% of STEM graduates but fill only 15% of STEM roles.

Empowering women is good for STEM

She says: “To progress, we must work harder to educate young girls to actively consider qualifications and careers in STEM industries as something they can, and should be, pursuing. We need to raise the profile of women who are successful in STEM roles to act as role models, particularly at board and senior management level. We also need to think about educating men about the value women bring when working in these fields.”

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“For me, the process of empowerment has to start from the top down. I sit on the advisory board of Netherlands-based AutoFill Technologies to help ensure it achieves its goals of equal representation and opportunities in the workforce. In line with its proactive pursuit of greater diversity, the business is encouraging women in particular to apply for IT and engineering roles in its current recruitment drive.

“STEM companies gain from greater female participation because women bring with them different experiences and viewpoints – and arguably a greater degree of empathy – enabling the benefits of research, innovation and technology development to reach a much wider section of society,” says Ayumi.

With AI set to play a huge part in all our lives going forward, she asserts women must be involved in its development at a fundamental level to ensure an inherent gender bias isn’t inadvertently built into the data and algorithms shaping our future.

“It’s an opportunity to take positive action at ground level, bearing in mind the Institute for the Future predicts 85% of future STEM jobs won’t exist until 2030,” she says.

Gender bias

The findings of the report appear to indicate the ongoing drive to get more women to pursue education and careers in STEM to raise women’s earning power and erode sexist stereotypes may not be working, according to one of the researchers, Alysson Light, Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of the Sciences.

In an article covering the research she points out that when women make up more than 25% of graduate students in a discipline, men – and to a lesser extent women – become less interested in a discipline and salaries tend to go down.

She says: “For society to benefit fully from the broad spectrum of scientific disciplines, [science] advocates may need to address gender stereotypes more directly.”

Tackling the talent shortage

Increasing female representation in STEM will be essential if we are to fill the growing skills gap. According to tech giant Huawei within a global ICT talent shortage of 200 million people the top 10 hardest jobs to fill are STEM roles. The UK economy, for example, loses an estimated £1.5bn per year due to STEM skills shortages, and the US will have to find 3.5 million STEM jobs by 2025, with two million-plus vacancies predicted to go unfilled due to lack of appropriately skilled candidates.

So, one thing is certain, encouraging more women to get involved in STEM fields – and on parity with men – is going to be a necessity if we are to address the global shortage of talent, irrespective of concerns about whether a discipline is perceived as hard or soft.

1. Gender representation cues labels of hard and soft sciences: Alysson E.Light, Tessa M. Benson Greenwald and Amanda B. Diekman. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, January 2022

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