STEM’s gender problem

by | Feb 12, 2021 | Blog, Company

The gender gap shows the systemic discrimination against women in our society. From women working longer hours due to unpaid labour, to the fact that we are 47% more likely to be injured in a car accident – gender bias infiltrates almost every facet of the way we live.

Caroline Criado Cortez explains, “Failing to include the perspective of women is a huge driver of an unintended male bias that attempts (often in good faith) to pass itself off as ‘gender neutral.'”

This is true in the context of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM).

Women make up only 14% of the STEM workforce in the UK, highlighting the disproportionate representation of women within the context of education, academia and industry.

It starts at school where the lack of awareness and opportunities for young girls discourages further study at universities and henceforth careers in STEM. At my school, I was just one of two girls in my A-level Maths class.

This underrepresentation in STEM continued at university, where I studied Chemistry. I experienced firsthand the stereotypes and lack of female role models, with only a handful of my lecturers identifying as female. Celebrating and increasing the visibility of female role models and changing the way we see them within STEM is crucial to empower and inspire the next generation of women – young girls in particular. There are few examples of women scientists within media, books and society even today. There are even fewer role models that are women of colour.

It’s therefore no surprise that only 25% of STEM graduates are female. It’s also no surprise that this leads to a male dominated workforce, which encourages further inequalities between genders like the gender pay gap. It’s a cycle of institutionalised bias, a lack of role models and lower pay that keeps this cycle going.

Margaret Mitchell, a senior research scientist for Google, calls the male dominated tech industry the ‘sea of dudes’, having worked with ‘hundreds’ of men and approximately ten women in the last five years. However, women are crucial to the diversity of the STEM workforce and increasing the quality and innovation in these fields.

Mitchell says “I do absolutely believe that gender has an effect on the types of questions that we ask. You’re putting yourself in a position of myopia”.

She implies that if systems such as AI are going to play a role in people’s lives, women must also have an influence in the decision making, not just men. This is because the unintended bias, perspectives and opinions will always grow from lived experiences – and gender, like other identities of race, class and ableism, will have an influence.

Bias towards men in STEM also means that leadership – whether intentional or not – are dismissing talent. 40% of females say that their less qualified male counterparts have been given promotions instead of them. While this serves to increase the gender pay gap even more, lead to further misrepresentation at the top and a lack of relatable role models, it also means that leaders aren’t harnessing the true potential of their workforce. It can mean that organisations are not performing at their very best.

Diversity is also critical for accelerating innovation and generating ideas – so allowing an organisation to be dominated by just one segment of society may mean you’re not only dismissing the talent you have right now – but the resultant long-term benefits of gender diversity too.

There is no quick and easy solution to this colossal inequality in STEM, but getting more women in higher paying positions will help narrow the gender pay gap. Across a range of industries, companies are beginning to commit to this change, but it will be slow. The University of Bristol carried out a study with 3,500 new parents and found 27.8% of women compared to 90% of men remained in full time employment after childbirth. Most companies don’t enhance paternity pay to be in line with maternity, which leads to the difficulty of women returning to work and adds to the gender pay gap.

Another issue is unconscious bias of hiring managers. Hiring committees that claim it is not a problem are less likely to promote women, and male hiring managers are more likely to hire a male over a female that has an identical application, even if they truly believe to be objective in decision making. Whereas when it is recognised that women often face barriers when it comes to climbing the career ladder, hiring committees are more likely to put aside the bias. The sooner that these biases are understood by people in powerful positions, the easier their opportunity to challenge this bias becomes.

There also needs to be a change in mindset. Girls must be encouraged and given the confidence to study the subjects in school and at university. Fewer females tend to pick STEM subjects as it is male dominated and they are considered masculine subjects, and when you can’t relate to people in these classes you’re less likely to join. Furthermore, it’s understood that girls and young women are more likely to choose a career which directly helps others, so the emphasis on career paths that can make a difference from the study of STEM subjects must be clearly communicated.

Being one of two girls in my A-level maths class, holding a male dominated university degree in Chemistry and with the knowledge that females make up only 25% of the workforce within tech, it was refreshing to become a part of the all female Labs team at Temporall. It’s evidence that the field is evolving to be more inclusive, and although it is a challenge, it is necessary to close the gender gap and celebrate gender diversity within STEM.

In my team, we are constantly developing our indexes and A.I. tech platform Workbench in order to analyse the way that companies work. The design of these indexes and the capabilities of Workbench are based on the Temporall team’s knowledge, industry experience, engineering capability, the latest academic research – and of course, it’s also influenced by lived experience, even if unintentionally. If we all had one kind of perspective on the way organisations and people work, then our insights would be incredibly limited. I celebrate the diversity in our idea sharing and the female role models we have here, particularly after facing underrepresentation throughout STEM in the whole of my academic journey to get here.

It’s also important to recognise that I am writing this as a young, white woman so my experience will be different to a woman of colour’s experience, for example. Addressing these differences, any prejudices, and continuing to amplify voices is a critical step in order to progress STEM inclusivity.

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