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One million reasons to keep on empowering women within STEM

10 July 2020

Women currently make up 24 percent of core STEM roles, but for the first time ever, there are over one million women working in the industry. It’s a milestone worth shouting about, but there’s still more that needs to be done.

Look back at 2019, for example, and you’ll see just how far things have improved, with women now some of the most influential people in the industry  – including Katie Bouman, the history-maker who engineered the first image of a black hole. In this article, we track the reasons why more women have chosen STEM in the past forty years, and why the numbers need to keep rising. 

Why more women are needed in STEM

The push for getting more women in STEM goes far beyond gender parity. It’s not just a case of making workforces fair, more women are needed in the industry to make innovations more useful and safer. How relevant can innovations be if they don’t take into consideration the needs of half the population? 

LinkedIn also reported that more women entered STEM over any other industry in the last four decades. The benefits of this have been spelt out by the likes of philanthropist and former General Manager at Microsoft, Melinda Gates, who stated: “Innovation happens when we approach urgent challenges from every different point of view. Bringing women and underrepresented minorities into the field guarantees that we see the full range of solutions to the real problems that people face in the world”.

Helen Wallaston, CEO of WISE – the UK STEM gender equality campaign group – called for the good work to continue back in 2018, even before the target of one million was reached. 

Wallaston thanked winners at the 2018 WISE awards who “have managed to get more women into engineering and technology, removed barriers preventing women moving up through the ranks and seen the benefits of doing so in terms of improved business performance.”

Technology 

On the flip side, the US tech industry – one where women are generally paid less than men, despite being one of the highest paying fields – has suffered its own mishaps for a lack of women in the workplace. In 2018, Fitbit faced criticism for their period tracker having a 10-day window. Had more women been involved in the development of the tool, it would have been spotted that it could last longer. 

In the UK, the numbers for women working as an IT professional decreased from 181,575 in 2018 to 180,600 in 2019 – showing that more action needs to be taken for women to benefit from the rapid growth of the tech industry. 

Removing the bias

The idea, or bias, that men are better suited for certain tasks or professions than women has been around since history books began, with many people raised to believe that they are suited to very different things. 

In the US, one of those perceptions relates to the study of maths (or math). Laura Segal, Senior Vice President for the American Association of University Women, summarised: “Teachers and parents provide explicit and implicit messages starting in early childhood that boys and men are ‘better’ at math, and the gaps in the professions reinforce the opportunities, culture, and lack of role models that perpetuate male dominance”.

The aforementioned Helen Wollaston has also echoed similar thoughts, by stating: “There is a stereotype that to be a scientist or a mathematician, you should be a guy and we want to get more girls to see that they can be them too. The stereotype limits their options because the girls worry people will think they are odd.”

A lack of female role models has previously been a major factor as to why students avoided STEM courses. To combat this, exam boards introduced more content centred around famous women in the industry. More and more have learnt about Rosalind Franklin, the woman central to the understanding of DNA, among others, through the initiative. A-level results in 2019 showed that female students studied STEM courses (50.3%), outnumbering male students (49.7%) – proof that the removal of bias can lead to a positive outcome. 

Engineering success

Unlike the decline in the UK tech industry, engineering has seen a steady increase in women taking up engineer roles. 2019 saw 50,475 women in engineering compared to 49,250 in 2018. Rewind the clock to 2009 and you’ll find that the numbers have almost doubled when compared with the 2019’s figures. 

To put things in perspective, a lack of skilled STEM employees reportedly costs the UK economy £1.5 billion a year. While there are equal opportunities with apprenticeships, only a fraction of STEM positions are filled by women. 

Lookers, who offers a range of servicing plans, is in its third year of offering female apprenticeships and is at the forefront of encouraging women to choose STEM, with engineering a key element of its business. The aim is to double the amount of their female apprenticeships and continue to lead the way in making STEM the industry of choice. 

Funding the change

Many women have reportedly left work environments like engineering due to a toxic masculine culture. Having to work twice as hard to earn respect and be taken seriously is seen as a major influence on a sharp exit and change in career. 
Hungry to improve the gender gap in STEM industries, philanthropists have donated $25 million towards boosting women’s interest and flipping the narrative that they’re careers for men. The hope is to inspire others to follow in the footsteps of those who’ve found success. 

A chunk of the money generated will be used to fund grants towards studying STEM courses. 125 female ambassadors have been introduced to represent the different STEM-related careers, thanks to Lyda Hill Philanthropies. 

The challenges STEM can help overcome

The best way to round this article up is by covering the challenges STEM can help overcome. STEM can help create clear water access for those who don’t have it. A city’s design needs can be identified and implemented through technology and engineering. It can be used in practice to help clean up oil spills and grow food during floods. It touches on so many issues and day-to-day problems – so it’s vitally important that more and more people get into the industry, especially women, who can help plug the gap and continue to innovate in the right way. 

Progress has been made, both in the UK and the US, but there’s still a long way to go. This side of the pond, the one million target is something to be celebrated. Now, it needs to be the catalyst for empowerment to continue well into the next four decades and beyond. 


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