Increased visibility and celebration of women in STEM will drive global innovation

Professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences, information, mathematics, and statistics at UC Berkeley, Jennifer Chayes explores why better recognition and celebration of the achievements of women in STEM is crucial to helping deliver solutions to some of humanity’s biggest challenges

A new year brings with it a sense of optimism and hope for what lies ahead. Despite what has frequently felt like an overwhelming 2021 during which we faced unprecedented challenges associated with Covid-19, optimism revealed itself in the form of new inventions, collaborations and developments which accelerated the world of science, technology, engineering, and math, and improved many areas of life.  

I was particularly heartened by the global recognition surrounding Dr Sarah Gilbert’s discovery of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. One year on from the UK deploying the vaccine and an incredible 2.5 billion doses have been administered across the world, saving countless lives, helping to keep many people out of hospital, and reducing pressure on healthcare services.  

This innovation demonstrated the impact science has on our daily lives and created a closer connection between the public and scientific communities. But it’s a rare example of a female scientist being so publicly recognised and celebrated, something which continues to be a barrier in helping to address gender diversity in STEM.

You can’t be what you can’t see  

Positively, year-on-year increases has culminated in there being more than one million women currently working in STEM, however they still make up less than 30% of the global STEM workforce.  

Far from being a tick-box exercise or passing fad, there are bigger issues and implications at play here that go beyond the need to simply address the gender divide. It relates to the unique value and contribution of women within STEM industries – many of which continue to be male-dominated despite some of the world’s best scientists and technologists being women.  

While not about gender or ethnicity quotas, the absence of a single female in the scientific categories of the recent Nobel Prize winners was noticeable.  

Yet we already know that diverse teams are better at problem solving and developing innovative solutions to challenging issues. This has been well-demonstrated in studies of corporate leadership and corporate board membership, where companies with more diverse leadership perform much better with respect to financial metrics. 

In much the same way as modern workplaces, we need to cultivate environments in STEM that are inclusive and diverse and put policies and programs in place which encourage and support women while removing systematic barriers to their advancement in STEM careers. We need to redefine what a scientist looks like in society so young women and girls can see themselves in role models and aspire to the same ambitions.     

The education system and the teaching community have a crucial role to play in achieving this, from placing more explicit attention to the achievements of female scientists, to nurturing female pupils who show an initial interest in STEM and ensuring they have the support systems to pursue it.  

During the pandemic, we witnessed the importance of scientists and nations which are typically competitive collaborating in the face of an existential threat. In this respect, the value of diverse contribution allowed for the advancement and acceleration of innovation and the ability to deliver solutions at scale. The same applies within STEM.  

Diversity makes science better, both by enabling 50% of the world’s population to contribute to STEM – with phenomenal results – and by broadening the viewpoints, questions and areas explored by researchers, allowing greater potential for new discoveries. In short, women offer both deep expertise and broaden perspective.  

Knowing that science and technology sit at the heart of providing solutions to some of humanity’s biggest challenges – from the climate crisis, to healthcare and sustainability, to the global pandemic – surely creates hope that scientists, politicians, and educational systems will continue to work together for a more prosperous future.  

But if we want STEM to both benefit from and support the entirety of our diverse society, then we need to employ more role models and a representation of that diversity in these fields, ensuring the attractiveness of careers in STEM so the talent pipeline is future-proof and younger generations can continue the work in turning purpose into progress.  

First and foremost, teams that do not include women are missing half of the talent in this world. Lack of diversity in teams also limits the perspective women can bring to questions. When we limit who can contribute, we in turn limit the problems that can be solved.  

Accessibility aids ambition

I’ve talked about the need for better communication, visibility and storytelling when it comes to both the impact of science and technology in delivering everyday impact, and the role of women in that progress. As important as these factors is recognition, incentivisation and the need to enable accessibility in STEM to under-represented and disadvantaged groups.  

Fantastic work is being done by STEM communities to drive awareness and engagement to these groups, including STEM-orientated field days, workshops, mentoring schemes and in-work placements with research and academia. We’re also increasingly seeing philanthropic and CSR initiatives by private sector, designed to deliver solutions-focused innovation.

For example, I’m part of the judging panel for the VinFuture Prize, a global prize set up last year in Vietnam to pledge $4.5m annually to reward breakthrough scientific research and innovation that improves lives around the world.  

Unlike other science prizes, it focuses on the combination of scientific and humanitarian outcomes with nominations centred on the most urgent challenges facing humanity and the role of science and technology in helping address them.

Through its Special Prize for Women, the Foundation is hoping to start a revolution in the way we value, reward, and recognise female scientists. But it’s also to cultivate, nurture and ignite a passion and belief among anyone around the world who may be interested in pursuing a career in STEM.  

This extends to the additional prize for innovators from developing countries, who typically don’t receive recognition because their voices aren’t heard as widely as they deserve to be.  

While prestigious ceremonies already exist, there aren’t enough that focus explicitly on how science and technology can create a better world for all, and this type of recognition of scientific achievement is crucial in promoting diversity within the scientific community to widen accessibility for future innovators.  

Fostering a more female future in STEM  

By continuing to celebrate and recognise the achievements of females within STEM, we can energise new talent and inspire the next generation of women to consider a rewarding career in STEM disciplines while simultaneously accelerating global innovation and solutions to complex challenges.  

My message to anyone considering a career in STEM would be to always question what you don’t understand, work very hard, dream big, and remember that in the end, what matters the most is the positive effect you can have on humanity and the world around you.

You might also like: Calling female STEM innovators: Submissions open for les Margaret Awards 2022

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