Women in STEM careers

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Women earn 20 per cent less than men on average in nearly every occupation. That means $2 less for every $10 paid to men. According to the World Economic Forum, if change occurs at the same pace as it has done for the past years, it won’t be until 2186 that women will finally reach pay parity.

Women’s participation in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers is one of the areas that is lagging behind. Although more women graduate from university worldwide than men, they remain a minority in STEM fields. World Economic Forum research sustains that only four countries in Europe can claim to have at least 15 per cent of all STEM graduates be women. On top of this, most women who earn a degree are less likely to work in that field, with only one in seven actually working in these areas. But, why does this happen?

Ingrained biases

Biases start at a very young age and can mark the path of women’s careers. When it comes to sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics, girls are rarely encouraged to study a degree in these fields. Parental expectations have a huge role to play here. These fields are typically male-dominated and seen as masculine, therefore girls are encouraged to focus on humanistic careers instead.

Speaking to an academic researcher, she explains that she went on to study economics, but her father was against her doing it as he said ‘this was not a career for women.’ As a matter of fact, what she really wanted to study was engineering, but that was completely out of her reach and her father wouldn’t have approved. This was about 30 years ago. Her daughter has gone on to study engineering, but even now she is one of only 30 female students in a class of 200.

Loreto de Esteban, who studied chemical engineering in the Chemical Institute of Sarria (IQS) in Barcelona, explains that what got her interested in engineering was the fact that there are very few women. ‘There’s an unconscious bias when it comes to women in engineering,’ she explains, ‘the first day I went to class, all of my male colleagues were in awe. I remember this moment perfectly, they were all very surprised. I was the first female student to arrive and after seeing their reaction, I realised that it’s really uncommon for a woman to study for an Engineering degree.’ Her colleagues would think that she was a Business student (the other degree in her faculty) and not an Engineering student. ‘I think there’s strong bias and this puts women off from STEM careers. Unconsciously, you think that if you’re a woman, studying engineering is not common and, therefore, everyone will judge you,’ she says. There are many stereotypes that are still very alive. Loreto has even heard that the reason why she got good grades was because she was a woman. But obviously this is not the case, as she was one in five female students out of 70, and only two of them graduated in her year.

Women who do overcome those initial barriers and excel in STEM careers are then facing the pressure of being the only woman pursuing a career in these fields or future discrimination by employers. According to a working paper from Georgetown University, one of the reasons women feel pressure in STEM fields is because of how recruiting and mentoring is framed, as they actually reinforce the idea that STEM is for men. Adriana D Kugler, a professor at Georgetown's McCourt School of Public Policy and co-author of the working paper, states that ‘Society keeps telling us that STEM fields are masculine fields, that we need to increase the participation of women in STEM, but that sends a signal that it’s not for women, and it can work against keeping women in these fields.’

Sending the message that STEM fields are for men is not only holding women back, it's also not true. While certain areas such as computer science, biophysics and physics tend to be male-dominated, others such as neurobiology, environmental biology and biology of global health tend to be female-dominated. Therefore, when it comes to getting more women into STEM careers, ‘changing this perception that STEM is male-dominated and masculine is something that would certainly help,’ Kugler says.


'Although more women graduate from university worldwide than men, they remain a minority in STEM fields.'


Once in the workforce and pursuing a STEM career, women feel other pressures in the workplace, such as not having equal opportunities, earning less than men or facing a number of obstacles for promotion. Women and men are described in different ways when it comes to leadership and ‘decisions are made on that basis,’ according to Darren Baker, doctoral researcher in the Department of Management at King's College London.

According to Baker, ‘women often feel that they don’t have the required attributes because of the way organisations implicitly define them’ and, therefore, organisations should recognise that leadership attributes are much more diverse and multifaceted than they currently acknowledge. ‘Officially, organisations would never articulate their ideas of leadership in a biased way,’ he explains, ‘but implicitly they absolutely do and that leads women to feel somewhat ill-prepared for leadership positions.’ This leads to a lack of female managers and also a lack of role models that will inspire other women to pursue a career in STEM.

Elena Sastre, an engineer working at a major tech company, started her engineering career doing an internship in Henkel where she worked in the packaging department and then at Procter & Gamble, were she was first in the factory and then in the man-planning department. Elena explains that she didn’t see any difference between men and women in any of these cases. However, when she changed roles to process engineer in a factory in London, she did. In her department there were only two women. ‘I was treated as a woman in the sense that my colleagues wanted to make my work easier. I was very hands-on in any process and they would insist on doing it themselves as I was a “lady”,’ she says. Now she’s working in the supply chain department in a large tech company and she’s the only woman in a team of 25. ‘I’ve never felt any discrimination, but it feels somewhat awkward to be the only woman in the meeting room,’ she explains, ‘I think as a woman, we have a different perspective and bringing that to the table is very important.’

Role models

Let's look at the UK workforce. It is made up of 45% women, but only 13% of board members in the FTSE 100 are female. When you look at STEM careers, only around 10% of women are managers and only 10% of STEM businesses are owned by women. But this is not just in the UK, only 30% of the world’s researchers are women.

Given the low numbers, it’s important that those women who do get to a managerial level or are at the forefront of research, speak up and raise their voice to motivate other women. Elena Sastre explains that she was invited by her then employer to a conference about women in engineering where they promoted women in STEM careers to work in factories and managing processes rather than just taking roles in consultancy. Organisations like Women in STEM or STEM Women are encouraging girls to go into these fields and are working towards breaking stereotypes. By promoting stories of successful female engineers, mathematicians or scientist, they are changing the scene.

It’s also important for those who came up with groundbreaking ideas to be included in history books: from Marie Curie to Ada Lovelace. Author Sam Maggs has written a series of books for children (published by Quirk Books) that focus on women in STEM and women inventors.

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and founder of the Lean In Foundation, has been advocating for women across all sectors to take a seat at the table. She has been an active voice defending women’s rights in the workplace and is a role model in the technology industry. So is Caterina Fake, co-founder of Flickr and Lucy Bradshaw, Senior Vice President at Electronic Arts.

Outside of tech, there are other role models young girls should be looking up to. Iranian mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani became the first woman to win the Fields Medal and Sally Ride, a former NASA astronaut who spent 343 hours in space, was the first American woman in space. Ride is now President and CEO of Sally Ride Science, an organisation that creates engaging science programmes for teens and young girls.

Although we do have solid role models in the STEM field, we don’t have enough. Children in school should be taught about women scientists, mathematicians, inventors and engineers who have changed the world, and girls should be encouraged and not discouraged to pursue a career in the STEM. If it weren’t for those women who braved this male-dominated field, we wouldn’t have many things that we have today. It was Ada Lovelace who created the first computer algorithm. It was Hedy Lamarr’s invention of a secret communications system during World War II for radio-controlling torpedoes employing ‘frequency hopping’ technology that laid the technological foundations for all wireless transmission technology, from Wi-Fi to GPS. And it was the ancient Mesopotamian women who first developed, sold and drank beer!