June 2020 saw Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) celebrate reaching the milestone of one million women working in core STEM across the UK. Certainly, an achievement to be recognised and not to be devalued, but unfortunately there is still more that needs to be done in this vastly underrepresented sector by women.
Statistics show that women now make up 24% of the core STEM workforce and that the number of women in engineering has almost doubled from 25,000 to 50,000 in the last decade. Sadly, though the STEM industry still witnesses a predominantly male workforce with the gender imbalance often referred to as the STEM gap which remains an issue in the modern labour market.
So, what is driving this disparity in gender within STEM?
It all starts in the classroom where there is a lack of awareness shown to girls in school coupled with poor encouragement for them to study STEM further at university. Unfortunately, stereotypes exist that can discourage girls from taking STEM subjects at school, such as people who work in STEM are perceived as nerdy or socially awkward.
Statistics show that there is a noticeable gap between girls and boys that study STEM subjects beyond GCSE (35% of girls and 80% of boys). Furthermore, at university, there are only 25% of graduates in STEM subjects who are women. Sadly, fewer girls are picking STEM subjects at school due to it being seen as a male-dominated subject and knowing that your class is going to be full of boys can be off-putting for girls, especially at secondary school age.
Currently in the UK, only 15% of Engineering graduates are female. In some regions, there are also accessibility barriers, such as reduced access to computer rooms and unequipped teaching facilities and expertise, which have led to an imbalance in engineering teams when it comes to diversity.
Bringing more women into the STEM sector is not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. Research shows that diverse teams perform better and that individuals from different genders, races, backgrounds, and experiences bring different perspectives that can lead to innovative solutions.
Studies show that it is not an ability issue and women from under-represented groups face prejudice twice over, both against their gender and their race. By not having a full representation of the population it means that many products that are part of our daily lives have been developed without input from women, a large portion of the population. Adding diversity to STEM occupations results in increased creativity and innovation fuelled by different perspectives about issues and how to solve them.
Women in STEM have made major differences in people’s lives for example, airbags in cars that were originally designed to protect adult males but didn’t protect smaller female bodies or children. Women engineers introduced changes that made a difference in product safety.
As technologies such as Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning begin to be embraced, the importance and capacity of data and its frameworks is growing. In the past, data was an outcome, however, data is now implemented within technologies, responsible for informing all our systems. This is where potential data bias can evolve. Several research centres, such as the AI Now Institute, have reported that voice and speech recognition systems performed worse for women. Most recently, YouGov found that close to two-thirds of women say voice assistants such as Siri and Alexa have difficulties responding to their commands because they are built predominantly by men.
Whilst, we’ve come a long way in diversifying STEM, we still have a way to go before the tech industry will have a truly diverse workforce. Businesses have an opportunity and an obligation to help diversify not only their workforces, but the talent pool.