Where are the women in STEM?

Every year, International Women’s Day is a celebration of women’s achievements across all fields but it’s also a time to reflect on gender equality and the ongoing battles that women face.

A general overview of where we are with regard to achieving full gender equality can be gained by turning to The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index.

Since 2006, the Global Gender Gap Index has been tracking the progress of closing the gender gap across the areas of Economic Participation and Opportunity, Educational Attainment, Health and Survival and Political Empowerment. It scores each area on a scale of 0 to 100, depicting the percentage of the gender gap that has been closed.

The 2022 report examined data across 145 countries and found that the overall gender parity score is now around 68%. The same report predicted that it will take another 132 years to reach full parity between the genders.

While it’s clear that we still have work to do to achieve global gender equality, an area where women have always been particularly under-represented is in STEM industries. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics have historically been dominated by men and there is now an exciting opportunity to address the lack of gender diversity and consider how STEM companies can attract and retain female talent.

The statistics

Women are gradually becoming more represented within the STEM workforce. In 2019, the ONS Labour Force Survey found that in the UK, there are now over 1 million women working in STEM occupations. While this only makes up 24% of the total STEM workforce, it shows a steady increase since 2016 when women made up 21% of STEM workers. Based on data trends between 2009-2019, research company WISE predict that women will be in 29% of STEM positions by 2030.

In the US, women made up 27% of all STEM workers in 2019, which is a steep increase from the 8% of 1970. Despite several attempts to encourage women into STEM fields, only 30% of US female students choose STEM subjects with women only making up 3% of ICT students.

In technology, where many innovations of the future are being created and researched, Catalyst found that globally in 2021, women comprised 28% of board directors, 16% of managers and in 2019, only 3% of women were CEOs of tech companies.

Looking at AI, a prominent tool in the future of technology, the UNESCO Science Report of 2021 found that just 22% of the global AI workforce are female. However, the same report found that women make up 40% of worldwide computer science graduates.

These numbers get even smaller in engineering. STEM Women found that in 2019, only 10% of UK engineers were women and in 2021, the Society of Women Engineers reported that only 14% of US engineers were women. Worldwide, INWED found that as of 2022, this figure is at 16%. There is a gradual increase in women entering engineering professions but the 2019 figures from the STEM Women research of the UK show that women made up 16% of engineering graduates compared to women making up just 10% of the workforce in the same year.

A recent survey from the American Mathematical Society found that women comprise 19% of full-time faculty members in university maths departments. In the UK, 2019 figures show that there is a slight drop in women graduating with maths degrees since 2016. This makes mathematics the only core STEM area where there is a notable dip in women entering the field.

Looking beyond the gender binary, a 2019 UK study found that almost half of transgender scientists had considered leaving their job due to discrimination or a hostile working environment and 32% had experienced harassment or exclusionary behaviour at work. So, it would appear that gender bias in STEM is not just reserved for women.

It’s interesting that much of the data suggests that there is a significant gap between the number of women graduating with degrees in STEM subjects and the number of women finding professional work in those fields. So, what are the reasons for this?

The barriers

Women face several barriers in progressing their STEM careers. The 2022 McKinsey Women in the Workplace report found that in the US, for every 100 men who are promoted to manager roles, only 87 women are promoted, the number dropping to 82, when looking specifically at women of colour.

There is plenty of evidence that one of the major barriers that women in STEM face is discrimination and unconscious bias within the male-dominated culture of the industry. Recent research has found that 49% of women in technology have experienced some form of discrimination at work and 20% have resigned due to this discrimination or harassment.

This gender bias and discrimination also extends into the STEM talent search, as a 2012 Yale University study found that 127 scientists would rather hire a male over a female candidate, despite them having identical competencies.

The root of this bias perhaps lies in the persistent underestimation of girls’ maths and science abilities, which begins in early education. A 2013 US study found that teachers often ‘underrate the maths proficiency of girls when compared to boys with similar achievement and behaviour’, indicating that STEM biases are present throughout a woman’s life. Similarly, UNESCO’s 2020 report on STEM education for girls in eight Asian countries found that the perception that STEM subjects are male subjects caused a gender gap to grow.

Another barrier to women succeeding in STEM careers is the lack of flexible working hours to fit around raising a family. Childcare responsibilities still predominantly fall on women and a 2020 study across the US and Europe found that female scientists with at least one child under the age of five reported a 17% larger decline in research time than their male colleagues.

Studies also suggest that mothers in STEM are often seen as less competent than fathers or childless women, so are often overlooked for promotions and opportunities for career progression, widening the gender gap at senior levels.

A 2019 study found that in the US, 42% of women and 15% of men left a STEM career within three years of having their first child. These figures are perhaps the clearest evidence that a career in STEM is not conducive to family life and that this disproportionately affects women.

When addressing the significant gap between the number of female students graduating with STEM degrees and the number of women working in STEM, a 2021 study by The Conversation with 57 childless PhD students (both men and women) found that several female students had been advised to choose between a STEM academic career and motherhood. In fact, the women were twice as likely than their male peers to say that they were not planning on a STEM career after graduating.

These common barriers go some way to explaining why there is a gender gap in senior positions within STEM. However, gender diversity is a great benefit to any business, so what can be done to increase female representation, specifically in STEM?

The benefits of gender diversity in STEM

While it’s important to foster gender diversity in any industry, a lack of women in STEM could have serious repercussions for scientific research. Medicines or inventions that have been researched, designed, manufactured and tested by homogenous groups have proven to be less effective for diverse audiences e.g. the seatbelt was first designed around the male physique.

Therefore, the absence of women and gender non-conforming people from vital processes in the innovation of future products creates a risk of alienating -and potentially endangering the lives of- half of the human population. Gender diversity in STEM results in more questions being asked, different perspectives being heard and deeper, more valuable research being undertaken.

Positions in STEM -particularly in technology and engineering- are set to increase by about 11% in the next ten years. It is imperative that young women and gender diverse people of the next decade are inspired and empowered to fill these roles and add diversity and inclusion to future research and innovations.

Looking to the future

Discrimination, harassment and the burden of domestic responsibilities partially explains why women in STEM leave their careers before they reach managerial or CEO level, therefore exacerbating the significant gender pay gap. It’s these issues that business leaders need to address if they want to attract and retain female talent.

A 2017 Unilever study found that 67% of women feel pressured to ‘get over’ discrimination or harassment in the workplace. It also found that 64% of women and 55% of men don’t speak up when they witness gender discrimination or sexual harassment. By implementing a clear, no-tolerance policy on discrimination and harassment and providing a safe way for employees to report inappropriate behaviour, women and marginalised workers will feel better protected at work.

Providing mentorship and development opportunities for women will nurture confidence and empower them to move into leadership roles. A business that actively inspires women to advance in their careers indicates to female workers that their voice and experiences are valued and that they have the talent to work and earn at the same levels at their male superiors.

Establishing flexible working arrangements for mothers and carers allows women to enjoy a thriving career while fulfilling their familial duties. A hybrid working pattern has shown workers to be more productive with higher job satisfaction and there is even some evidence that it could boost profits. So, there are plenty of benefits to both employer and employee in encouraging women to take advantage of this way of working.

Gender diversity in the workplace benefits everyone with research showing that a higher number of women in the workplace results in better employee engagement and retention, a positive company culture and less cases of burnout.

If you’d like to improve gender diversity and equity within your business, contact GDP today to see how we can help.

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