How to get more women into STEM

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How to get more women into STEM



It’s no secret that women are poorly represented in the STEM industries. Last year in the UK women made up 23 per cent of those hired across STEM and 24 per cent of graduates in STEM subjects.

Similarly, in the US, women accounted for 24 per cent of STEM workers and 30 per cent of STEM degree holders, according to a report by the OCE.

STEM is quite literally the future, a future that requires the experiences, contribution and insights of women but how do we get more women into the sector?

We spoke to Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE and Cofounder of Stemettes, a social enterprise looking to inspire the next generation of females into science, technology, engineering and maths. She offered her insights on what can be done to encourage more diversity in the sector.

Challenging perceptions

It’s time to abolish the antiquated notion that women, by simply being women, are less suited to jobs in technical areas. For too long we’ve listened to the old stereotype that men have a natural aptitude for maths and science while women have a natural aptitude for caregiving, homemaking and, you know, gestation. It’s 2018, let’s acknowledge that the x chromosome does not have some immediate and irrevocably negative effect on one’s ability to learn STEM.

Anne Marie says these gender stereotypes are both a perception problem and a social norm problem that affect multiple areas of society. “They feed into what we accept as parents, as teachers, what we talk about in the media and what we see on tv and film,” she said.

According to Anne Marie, one possible solution to the problem is to harness the power of media and characters on tv. We need better representation of women, so young people are seeing a diverse set of characters they can aspire to be. “Even if you don’t think you’re scientific, you may come across a character you identify with who is,” she said.

Girls have different motivators when it comes to choosing a career path and in Anne-Marie’s experience, they need a really tangible reason for pursuing a certain direction. “When girls take on these (STEM) subjects they tend to do really well in them and outperform boys so I think we just need to show them a little bit more of the creativity and altruism that’s involved in STEM,” she said.

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Mentors

Mentorship is an important part of career development and can really accelerate learning for young talent. In addition to more women being represented in the media and on tv, we need established female leaders to step up and be present in the community. By offering their advice and experiences, these women are providing strong female role models for professionals taking their first steps in their tech career or looking to develop within the industry.

Anne Marie says one of the biggest achievements in her career has been a project which involved running a tech incubator house for more than 100 teenage girls from across Europe. “We genuinely built a community of girls who were just as interested in 1D fan fiction as they were in acquiring CTOs for their startups, and that’s still a network that they are relying on today. It’s really quite powerful”, she said.

Working conditions

Technology by its nature is ever evolving so you don’t need to have years upon years of technical experience to wade in and learn something new which could become part of your role. In this regard, getting more women into tech doesn’t have to happen during their formative years, it can happen at any age. Tech employers can do their part to attract and retain women by fostering a culture of flexibility, says Anne Marie.

 “Flexible working is not just for working mothers but for working fathers too and also people who don’t have children. If you’re flexible enough you can allow people to prosper and be in control of their career,” she said.

Language is another factor that needs to be considered when looking at working environments, Anne Marie continued. “Certain phrases can feel loaded or heavily gendered, how many times have people been called bossy in performance reviews? The same goes for job descriptions, companies need to use gender neutral language that doesn’t favour one group over another,” she said.

Gender quotas

The validity of gender quotas has long been a contentious issue but for Anne Marie quotas offer an effective solution to a flawed system. Sometimes to affect real change, you need to force the issue.

“I know that sometimes there is the counter-argument that you’re only there as a token but your whole value doesn’t lie within the transaction of being brought in to reach a quota, that’s not what makes people listen to you in meetings,” she said.

“Progress wouldn’t be as slow as it has been if we had them. I mean equal pay legislation was brought in in the 60s and it’s still going to be another 100 years before we close the gap,” she continued.

It’s not just about morality, Anne Marie believes that commitment to gender parity is crucial for us to flourish as a society, as tech becomes even more integrated.

 “Because technology is so ubiquitous and because it’s affecting so much of our lives, we have to work a little bit harder to ensure we have balanced teams to create the technology and make decisions on the kind of technology we’re building,” Anne Marie said.

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