How Can We Go About Solving the STEM Gender Gap?
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The following article is an opinion piece written by Anca Ciobanu. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Technology Networks.
In the past few years, efforts against COVID-19 have seen women on the frontlines. Many of the notable scientific breakthroughs that we have witnessed came from women: Katalin Karikó’s research formed the basis of the COVID-19 vaccine, Ramida Juengpaisal’s digital tracker stopped the spread of misinformation and 14 year-old Anika Chebrolu’s science project identified a lead molecule that can selectively bind to and inhibit the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2.
Women make great contributions to STEM every day, and most organizations acknowledge this. In fact, 85 percent of organizations believe that a diverse and inclusive organization is crucial to encouraging different perspectives and ideas, and powering innovation. Yet, women remain underrepresented, particularly in top executive roles, and although organizations are setting ambitious diversity strategies, they often fall short.
So, how can we go about solving the gender gap? First, we must work to empower existing female employees and promote a feeling of inclusion in STEM workplaces. Almost half (49%) of the overall life sciences workforce is female; however, a greater proportion of women leave the industry at every step of the career ladder. This disconnect is compounded by rigid working hours, smaller pay rises and difficulties in taking career breaks when compared with other industries. There needs to be more programs to empower people coming back from maternity and paternity leave, progressive re-onboarding with flexible working hours, and training to help rebuild confidence in today’s fast-moving environment.
Many organizations believe they are promoting diversity, yet their female employees disagree. Massbio Technology Council found that 40 percent of companies consider themselves fully inclusive, but only 9 percent of women working in life sciences consider their companies to be diverse.
Organizations must reconsider their diversity strategies. As we return to the office, laboratory or hybrid working environment, organizations should review their policies and consider how they are supporting women returning to work. In order to prevent women being confined to mid-level roles and facilitate their progression into more senior positions, organizations should be offering both maternity and paternity leave. A clear promotional structure is also key to ensuring women progress.
Moreover, there’s a great deal of work to be done in terms of attracting new talent to STEM. From an early age, girls are subjected to bias in the education system: an Accenture study found that 57 percent of teachers admit to having made subconscious gender prejudices in relation to STEM. By the time students reach college, evidence of the effect of this bias is clear: only around 21% of engineering majors and 19% of computer and information science majors are women.
As these women progress into the STEM workforce, the gender gap becomes more apparent. Women make up only 10 percent of boards, and 20 percent of leadership teams. This gap perpetuates a vicious cycle, with 46 percent of women saying that they would reject an employer if they had an all-male board, all-male management or because they were interviewed only by men.
To put an end to this cycle, we must work to change attitudes to women in STEM at every level. Educators should be actively working with pharma companies, tech companies and governments, to inspire young girls and showcase the STEM career possibilities available to them. Once on the career ladder, to help progression to more senior roles, women need to be better supported in an environment where gender bias is removed and where their skills and contributions are recognized. Organizations should look to promote more women into leadership positions by offering clear feedback on performance, celebrating successes and providing mentorship.
Training schemes are crucial, providing a place for coaching and networking. Through cross-industry collaborative training, organizations can introduce women to new pathways in STEM that they might not otherwise have considered. For example, the Pistoia Alliance has recently launched its Women in STEM program, which will unite women from different areas of STEM, putting women in the majority and amplifying women’s voices.
Through initiatives like these, as well as collaboration with governments, regulators, charities and academia, we can begin to address the system-wide gender imbalances that exist in STEM, paving the way for a new generation of STEM female leaders.