Empowering women and girls to step into the STEM spotlight

This year’s International Women’s Day theme is about embracing equity, but what is the difference between equality and equity and why is it important? Equality is giving individuals and groups the same resources or opportunities but for a truly inclusive world  we need equity. Equity recognises that each person has different circumstances and allocates the exact resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome and that couldn’t be more true when it comes to empowering women and girls to step into (and not out of) the Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) spotlight. 

It is widely acknowledged that STEM careers are male dominated, with just 13% of the overall UK STEM workforce being women. It’s why female leaders in STEM must challenge gender stereotypes – when the only woman in the room, we should be asking why – so that we can call out discrimination and seek inclusion. 

Data from education bodies UCAS and HESA shows women make up 35% of STEM students in higher education in the UK. However, the lure of computer sciences, engineering and technology subjects is considerably less, with UK women constituting only about a fifth of the student body for these courses.

This gender disparity is alarming for all of us working in STEM, but society as a whole, especially as STEM careers are often referred to as the jobs of the future that drive innovation, social wellbeing, inclusive growth and sustainable development. 

UNESCO is leading the way in empowering women and girls into STEM careers, with the organisation challenging research and policies to try and change perceptions. 

It is why science and gender equity are vital to the world reaching sustainable development goals, and in recent years much work has been done to help inspire women and girls to study and work in technical fields. While more girls are in school today than ever before, they do not always have the same opportunities to complete and benefit from an education of their choice. 

Female role models are essential. It’s not rocket science, but we know that peer pressure has a strong influence, particularly in teenage years, on what girls choose to study. Many girls miss out on finding their niche in STEM because they don’t want to be the odd one out. This is why being able to meet successful female role models at an early age would expose them to the opportunities available, especially those women succeeding in technology. 

It’s not just about the next generation however, we need to also consider those women who are looking to join STEM from other industries and career paths. How do we make sure that they are set up for success? It is essential that we are able to start as we mean to go on, that we able to inform, engage and empower this cohort to see STEM as a meaningful option that allows them to not only bring in their transferable skills, knowledge and experience, but also have the ability to progress and be the role models we must continue to highlight. 

We must find a way of championing, celebrating and showcasing female voices in STEM, so that the next generation of leaders will be equitable to their male counterparts. This is not about preventing men from being successful, but instead creating a balance that offers opportunities to all. 

This is not just a UK issue, with gender inequalities in the US film industry being brought to light by the Gender Bias Without Borders study, which demonstrates how gender stereotypes are reinforced by the way females are characterised in movies.

The study showed that on screen, engineers, scientists and mathematicians are largely played by men, with seven times more male STEM roles in movies than female roles. In fact, just 12% of characters with identifiable STEM jobs onscreen were women. It’s a situation that moves off the screen to influence everyday perceptions of gender roles.

What we have also found is that there is an alarmingly high rate of attrition amongst women working in STEM, with many leaving their roles – especially in their mid-40s – due to the professional and family pressures that they face and the need to balance both. This has to change. These women have been forging their careers, gaining valuable experience and knowledge, but are becoming disenchanted and we have to understand how we can stop this. Instead, how do we retain this talent and ensure that they have an equitable voice at the top table in any STEM organisation. 

This is why STEM industries must play their part by broadening routes to entry, not just for women, but anyone from a diverse background. It is vital that companies are ensuring that women can move up the career ladder – and around in their careers – as easily as their male counterparts. 

By working together, employers, universities, colleges and organisations like Women in STEM (WISE), we can continue to help schools to encourage girls, as well as boys, to find that niche and be free from gender stereotypes that could limit their options – from GCSE or A-Level choices, to degrees and career paths. 

We must ensure that everyone has the digital skills needed to succeed in today’s technology-driven society. UNESCO has found that there is a growing consensus that we must look to enhance girls’ digital literacy for long-term and short-term learning, which we couldn’t agree more with. 

As the world continues to adapt and tech-based learning becomes more important for those future leaders to create positive social change, we must equip girls with the skills they need to navigate a changing world. 

As Wales’ leading network for the technology industry in Wales, we want to ensure that our members can help through enhanced outreach programmes to raise awareness, inspire and build an understanding of how STEM subjects can pave the way into future careers. It’s why programmes run by Thales and Sony UK TEC, as well as our academic institutions, are able to offer opportunities to students not only in Wales, but internationally. 

It is why we are dedicating the third day of Wales Tech Week under the banner of Talent4Tech to inspire the next generation, to encourage and empower young people – especially girls – to see STEM as their career of choice. We want to make sure that they are able to hear from female role models, to know that it is not an odd one out option, but instead our young women have the opportunity to truly shine in the STEM spotlight.