This Sunday, 11th February 2024, marks the annual International Day of Women and Girls in Science. The event is a global celebration of the women who work and contribute to the major scientific findings that we see every day.
Initially adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, the day is enacted annually by UNESCO in collaboration with UN Women. Both organisations work with national governments, civil society partners, corporations, and universities to promote awareness and dialogue to celebrate the accomplishments of women and girls in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and encourage young people to consider a future career in these fields.
So, what does this mean for businesses, and what role can we play in celebrating and helping women to thrive in science and other STEM-based careers?
Despite progress in gender equality and growing interest over the last decade, women continue to be underrepresented in STEM fields. In 2023, the gender gap in STEM remained significant, with women making up less than 30% of the global STEM workforce. Individual country statistics do little to better the picture, with the numbers sitting at 24% in the United States, 17% in the European Union, 16% in Japan, and 14% in India.
This inequality is concerning, as it leads to a lack of diversity and inclusion and ultimately will limit the potential of the STEM industry. Closing the gender gap will not only bolster sustainable tech-enabled growth and innovation but is also deemed an economic necessity, particularly given the changing nature of work and the new skills – collaborative and consultative, amongst others – this change requires of today’s workforce.
Identifying the causes of inequality
According to a recent report from MIT, four key factors are serving to perpetuate the STEM gender gap:
- Stereotypes – despite evidence to the contrary, there remains a deep-rooted perception that STEM subjects are associated with masculine traits, discouraging girls and women from pursuing this as a career path;
- Unconscious bias – this entrenched stereotyping can lead to unconscious bias in funding, hiring, and promotion, again disadvantaging and discouraging women and perpetuating under-representation;
- Lack of role models – the under-representation of women in STEM leadership positions makes it harder for girls and women to find role models, mentors, and support to overcome stereotypes and bias;
- Work-life balance imbalance – like other careers in law and banking, STEM careers can be demanding. Women remain more likely than men to opt out or choose to work part-time to handle family responsibilities, which can impact career advancement.
Strategies to address imbalance and nurture women in STEM
We need to address the still-prevailing misconception that men are somehow better equipped to succeed in the STEM industry. The core competencies and attributes required to make a meaningful contribution and impact are equally accessible to women, including technical and scientific knowledge, problem-solving skills, creativity, collaboration, and communication skills.
Businesses can play a crucial role in instilling the belief that women not only belong but can thrive in the STEM industry by promoting effective female role models and encouraging women working in STEM to share their stories. This should be a focus not just within the business itself, but within local communities, and educational institutions, to help encourage and inspire young women and girls – even at a primary school level. Concentrated and coordinated efforts to increase the visibility of the female STEM workforce, including those in senior leadership positions, will encourage interest in STEM careers as we strive to create a more diverse and inclusive working environment.
While we cannot immediately change the fact that there are fewer women in strategic positions in STEM, businesses can start to affect change by partnering with relevant communities that focus on supporting women on these career paths — including, for example, SheCanCode, a female-focused global career platform that works to close the tech gender gap.
Businesses can also take action by providing training, such as unconscious bias training to help colleagues avoid social stereotyping, and by establishing women’s networks and mentoring programmes. Another critical element to support a diverse and equitable working environment is consistent leadership behaviours — embodied in day-to-day work and led from the top. Leaders should be encouraged to adopt behaviours and mindsets that consistently make everyone feel valued and respected and create a sense of belonging.
Support from early stages to personal leadership
Organisations should also support women to fulfil their potential at all career stages – from entering, transitioning, remaining, or returning to the STEM industry.
Promoting engagement with technology at a younger age is critical to increasing the proportion of women joining the STEM industry in entry-level roles, which in turn will enable greater female representation in leadership positions. There is evidence – both globally and from within my organisation – that sustained effort and commitment to increasing diversity is effective at increasing the presence of women at all levels across the business.
The final element of nurturing women in STEM is allowing them to find and adopt their own unique style. Careers in STEM are changing; the nature of work is changing – and this brings with it a need for both new skills and new approaches. Rather than emulating other leaders, therefore, I strongly believe that those working in STEM roles should focus on understanding what works for them and embrace their own way of doing things – inclusive of gender, but also culture, individual personality, and values. These underpin the contributions we can bring to an organisation.
As we celebrate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2024, the best way to encourage and nurture girls and women in STEM is, in my opinion, to embrace uniqueness; that is how we will individually add value and collectively drive the change that we are seeking to achieve. As Oscar Wilde famously said: “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”
By Carole Noutary, Beyond Printer Director, Domino Printing Sciences (Domino).