Why education is key to closing the STEM gender gap

11 STEM experts, most of whom are female, share their own stories and advice to girls and women who may be considering a career in STEM

Observed annually on 11 February, International Day of Girls and Women in Science recognises the critical role women and girls play in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). Considering that a mere 13% of the overall UK STEM workforce are female, it’s a crucial opportunity to encourage women – particularly young girls – to pursue STEM subjects to help close the STEM gender gap.

With this in mind, 11 STEM experts, most of whom are female, have shared with Education Technology their own stories and advice to those girls and women who may be considering careers in STEM.

STEM awareness starts in school

It’s no surprise that the low number of women in STEM careers derives from a low number of girls choosing these subjects at school. As Hugh Scantlebury, co-founder and CEO at Aqilla comments, “Looking back over the last 50 years or so, there has been a gradual increase in the number of women working in finance and technology-related roles, which is encouraging, but the word is definitely ‘gradual.’”

Scantlebury continues, “It seems to all boil down to what subjects girls choose and find the most interesting at school – sadly, STEM subjects aren’t always top of the list, and so not having this qualification on their CV can close a lot of doors in this industry.”

This is a point with which Graham Jackson, CEO of Fluent Commerce, agrees. He believes that  equality in employment is an important issue that should be at the forefront of business objectives across all industries. “However,” he says, “there is no denying that the biggest gap by far is women in technical roles. Educating and encouraging girls to excel in these subjects starts at primary school and hopefully in doing so, will lead to an increase in the rate of women opting to continue the study of these subjects into further education and consider a career in STEM.”

So, how can schools go about tackling this gap? Connie Stack, chief strategy officer at Digital Guardian shares this suggestion: “Education, particularly in STEM, is the key to addressing many of society’s greatest challenges. Recent research from Microsoft and KRC Research found that confidence in STEM wanes as children get older – especially in girls – but interest can be recovered when subjects are related to real-world people and problems.”

It all seems to boil down to what subjects girls find most interesting at school – Hugh Scantlebury

Additionally, April Taylor, vice-president of ConnectWise Manage suggests that it’s not just about tackling the skills gap, but also the gender gap. “This is where schools and universities need to lead the way in encouraging more girls and women to become passionate about learning science and technology,” she says. “Having the opportunity to build websites, learn to code or use robotic toys can lead them to develop skills and potential careers within the tech sector to become the next developer, security expert or CTO.”

“With the constant developments in technology,” Taylor concludes, “organisations need to consider supporting these types of educational initiatives to help build their IT teams for tomorrow.”

Nicole Sahin, CEO and founder of Globalization Partners, agrees with Taylor, sharing her belief that: “Girls should feel inspired to choose STEM subjects knowing that there is a place for them in the industry. Visibility of these female role models is paramount in encouraging girls to consider a future in STEM, and for inspiring women already in a STEM career to be ambitious in their progression.

“We still have a long way to go, but men and women are now working together to topple traditional power structures. By challenging outdated views regarding women in STEM, and showcasing the female leaders who are excelling, we can make positive strives towards gender-parity.”

Making a stand in the workplace

However, it’s not always smooth sailing for women when it comes to STEM in the workplace – even if they have an education in the subject under their belt. As Agata Nowakowska, area vice-president at Skillsoft, says: “Women are still largely under-represented in the STEM arena and even less so in STEM leadership positions. The reality is that – even in 2020 – it’s so much more difficult for women to climb the career ladder. With persistent unconscious bias that women lack the confidence to apply for promotions or that they are simply not good enough to hold leadership positions, women have to work much harder than men to prove their ability.”

Nowakowska’s advice is this: “If we want to see more women in STEM, we need to change the way we see women and the way women see themselves. By showcasing effective female leaders and celebrating imperfection, more of us will see that STEM is a place where women can thrive.”

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This is a view with which Anna Rydel, senior sales engineer at Commvault Poland, agrees. Rydel describes her own experience of working in tech as being rocky. She says: “When I look back at my career in IT, I realise the most difficult was to gain self-confidence. I studied Quantitative Methods and Information Systems studies and during my early career I was constantly trying to prove that I was just as good as my male colleagues. I wanted to prove to myself that the hiring of me in the technical team was not caused by the improvement of the gender equality rate, but only by the value I brought into the company.”

Rydel’s advice to other women is to push outside of your own comfort zone: “Going out of our comfort zones while understanding we have nothing to prove allows us to be ourselves and improves our chance of success. I am excited to show other women that they don’t have to be just listeners, but should proudly share knowledge and show their point of view to influence the quickly transforming IT world.

“The biggest barriers I see are in ourselves and only overcoming them and trusting our intuition gives us a chance to go our own way despite the stereotypes surrounding us.”

Imogen Smith, applications engineer at Content Guru, agrees with Rydel, sharing her own experience in STEM as being positive. She comments: “I believe that STEM subjects are applicable to any career you may later choose. Studying maths at university, I realised that I really could choose to follow any career I wanted. I was also lucky to be on a maths course that was almost 50% women and I never felt like I was treated differently to the boys at all. But I am aware that this is not the same story everywhere. There is nothing more annoying than feeling that you have been sidelined or treated differently because of something out of your control – like your gender. Everybody should be given equal chances to excel in what they are good at or interested in.

“I am so grateful for the opportunity now to learn to code in many different languages. I know that I would never have been able to pick up this skill as fast as I did without my maths degree. I think there is still more to be done to find ways that everyone can learn, and love, to code to start closing the gender gap.”

The benefits of diversity

Gender diversity in the workplace is something organisations should constantly strive for. As Sheri Villers, VP of product engineering at SentryOne, believes: “Increasing the diversity of our workforce creates diversity of thoughts, strengths and skills which makes companies stronger, more agile and more resilient.

“Right now, there are simply not enough women taking jobs in STEM industries in particular. There are many facets to this problem, but one important area businesses can get involved with is encouraging girls and young women to study STEM subjects. By developing knowledge and confidence in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and/or math from a young age, more girls will grow up with a passion for these subjects—leading to more women who will embrace jobs in these industries. Every business can, and should, play its part to promote women in STEM.”

It’s a known fact that women bring with them different skills to a workforce. Svenja de Vos, CTO of Leaseweb Global, says: “In today’s modern working world, successful organisations are built on a diverse workforce. In fact, according to the Wise Campaign’s whitepaper, organisations that lead in gender diversity also lead in performance and profitability. This is why we need to encourage more women and girls to get into the science and tech industry, and that begins with studying STEM subjects at a young age.

“In today’s modern working world, successful organisations are built on a diverse workforce”

“Education needs to be fun,” de Vos continues, “that’s the only way to show both girls and boys how learning science and technology skills can lead to creative ideas. Take myself as an example – I’m still considered a unicorn for being a female CTO. However, I learnt to code at a young age and that’s how my passion for science and technology truly started. It’s important to remember that you’re never too young or too old to learn a new skill or change careers.”

De Vos concludes by sharing the following advice: “My advice to women is to keep developing yourself. Find a position that works for you – remember, jobs are person-specific, not gender-specific, and now is the time to change perceptions while narrowing the skills gap.”

Similarly, Ruth Iverson, senior software engineer at WhiteHat Security, encourages women who like “working with computers and technology” and who “enjoy seeing results of the code you write” to “go for it!” She advises: “Don’t be intimidated by men in the field – it’s an industry that’s still male dominated, so you have to be strong enough to push when you know you are right and be sufficiently open to accept valid feedback when you are wrong or struggling. The good news is that the number of female coders is increasing each year, which is hugely inspiring. And there are strong peer support groups – including Girls Who Code, who organise regular meet-ups. This is a great way to meet like-minded people and build a network.”

In summary, Bethany Allee, EVP marketing at Cybera, shares the following comment: “International Day of Women and Girls in Science is a great reminder to reflect on the amazing achievements of women in STEM across history. For example, women have been in technology from day one! The world’s first programmer was a woman – Ada Lovelace – so it’s only fitting that technology provides a platform for equality when it comes to recognising and anyone – regardless of gender identity.”

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