On 7 November 1867 Marie Curie was born. She is widely considered to be one of the most outstanding women in the history of science.
Marie Curie
Marie Curie provided by Shutterstock.com

She was the first person, and a woman for that matter, to win two Nobel Prizes. Marie’s work broke barriers not only in physics and chemistry but also for her gender, cementing the idea that women should very much have their equal place in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Why then, a century after her accolades, is the gender gap in STEM still so prevalent?

In the UK, Tech Nation found that men outnumber women by a ratio of three to one within the technology sector.In the US, women make up 48 per cent of the workface – and yet, within STEM, only 24 per cent of employees are female. Despite progression in gender quality, women are still grossly underrepresented in STEM. These low levels of participation can be traced back all the way to the school years, where a number of influences from society and culture, education and the labour market are all at play.

Science and prejudice

Women have long faced trials when entering jobs that are seen as ‘for men’ – from directors all the way to the Supreme Court. Let’s face it, STEM compromises mainly of white males. People tend to hire people they feel they relate to and identify with. This unconscious bias can foster negative attitudes and lead to damaging stereotypical behaviours. These behaviours can negatively affect the education, hiring, promotion, and retention of women in STEM.

It doesn’t help that there are those who believe that women are not well matched to STEM in general.  Just look at James Damore’s Google manifesto. He still has the old fashioned attitude that women are better suited to social and artistic careers; that they would struggle with making controversial leadership decisions and that they are neurotic and can’t handle stress. Without realising, many men carry these views subconsciously, and – with most STEM decision makers being white, middle aged men – this can influence whom they hire or promote. It is the same reason why holding blind auditions for orchestras increases women’s chances of advancing to the final round by 30 per cent.

However, it’s not only men that believe this. Some women, too, feel that men suit STEM more than they do.  This is why there are so many programmes aimed at getting girls interested in these areas. These on-going drives are trying to eradicate and challenge old fashioned view points held by parents and teachers alike, that girls are less likely to want be involved in STEM career paths – or that they will find it too tough.

Men have a very important role to play in narrowing the gender gap. Invariably they are in the seat of the interviewer, and they need to be encouraged, trained and in some cases forced to create diverse teams. They need training in conscious and unconscious bias, and need to be educated about the benefits of diversity.

Equality within the sector

If there was ever a reason to assemble a diverse team, surely it is because your business will do better as a result? Companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35 per cent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians, Forbes found. Additionally, a 2015 study from Bersin by Deloitte showed that diverse companies had 2.3 times higher cash flow per employee over a three-year period than non-diverse companies did.

Aside from this, the bottom line is that women are just as capable as men. People often ask, “Why should more women get into STEM?” It’s like asking why women should be doctors. These on-going drives to get women into science and technology will continue to happen until the question no longer needs to be asked.

Some women need to be persuaded to consider a career STEM. The opportunities for them in this industry are rife; it’s a growing trade with growing opportunities. But STEM companies need to make sure that they are promoting and paying women fairly. The stats would indicate that this might not be the case. For example, women comprise 20 per cent of engineering school graduates, but only 11 per cent of practicing engineers are women. There is a major drop off in the first ten years – women leave STEM jobs at a rate 45 per cent higher than men. It’s likely that gender bias plays a part here.

The UK has almost two million digital tech jobs, and between 2011 and 2015, the growth rate of digital jobs was more than double that of non-digital jobs. A lot of STEM jobs don’t exist yet.  In fact, Martin Boehm of IE University in Spain believes around 80 per cent per cent of jobs that will exist in 2025 don’t exist today.

Back to school

Encouraging women to get into STEM ultimately starts with education – from school to the boardroom. In school, coding should be mandatory for everyone; complex problem solving and critical thinking should be part of everyday life. When I was a child, we had computers around the house because my Dad was working with Digital in Ireland. I also remember all the Edward de Bono lateral thinking books we had. You will absorb what you are exposed to. As well as that, my Mum was an ardent feminist; she told her daughters they could do and be anything (and her son!). It was only when I started school that I realised people thought and told girls they couldn’t do things. Education and encouragement, fundamentally, is key to overhauling out-dated thinking.

In the workplace, training programmes can help people understand conscious and unconscious bias; both helping people to change the way they think, and call out unfair behaviour. Getting female talent into the industry is only half the story, however. Making sure they rise up the ranks is also key – with the support of women in leadership training programmes.

Overall, an attitude overhaul – for both women and men – is needed if we are to close the STEM gender gap. Through better education and encouragement of both genders, we can chip away at antiquated attitudes and create a more equal workplace.

About the author

This article was provided by Tara O’Sullivan, Chief Creative Officer at Skillsoft