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We need to talk about the lack of women in STEM

7 Mar 2019

For International Women’s Day 2019, Hannah Pisani talks to women STEM executives about the importance of gender equality in these workplaces.

Tomorrow, 8 March, marks International Women’s Day (IWD), an annual event that aims to celebrate the achievements of women around the world and is a call for action for gender parity. The theme of this year’s IWD is ‘Balance for Better’, and in the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) industries, the gender imbalance is prominent.

Why is it exactly that women continue to be underrepresented in STEM fields, and what can organisations do to rectify the ongoing imbalance? Below, four female executives from across STEM give their views on why the STEM gender gap still exists, how it can be closed and why they think STEM is just as much for women as it is for men.

‘This was a largely unconscious by-product of what the engineering industry was used to – as a woman I was a new entity’

An outdated outlook

Outdated biases appear to be a critical problem when it comes to closing the gender gap in STEM. Recalling her own experience of entering the engineering industry, Victoria Shepherd, service excellence manager at telecommunications company Arqiva, said: “When I started Arqiva’s engineering apprenticeship scheme 10 years ago, I joined what was a roughly 95pc male-dominated profession and inevitably faced some challenges as a result. There were certainly occasions when I would arrive on site for a job and be asked, ‘So when is the engineer turning up?’ Unfortunately, this was a largely unconscious by-product of what the engineering industry was used to – as a woman I was a new entity.”

How can we make a change?

“As schools struggle to retain and nurture interest in STEM subjects, education remains a major barrier on the path to gender parity,” continued Shepherd. “Despite the ongoing consumerisation of technology, there is still a perception that the STEM subjects are boring and more suited to boys. In order to counter such perceptions, the onus lies with the engineering industry to highlight the exciting side of these subjects.”

“There is a lot more that can be done to encourage women seeking entry-level roles to consider a career in the field,” said Barbara Reilly, commercial excellence director for Europe, North Australia and New Zealand at LEO Pharma. “I encourage students considering a career in the pharmaceutical industry to explore opportunities, and confidently recognise the value they can provide to this vibrant and evolving industry.”

‘There is no longer any room for bias in the workplace’

Echoing these sentiments, Anne-Laure Thieullent, AI and analytics group offer leader at Capgemini, explained: “The reality is that STEM subjects are for everybody and lead to rewarding and exciting careers. Teachers should encourage girls to take STEM in school and parents should encourage their daughters to explore these subjects.”

However, education isn’t the be all and end all to closing the gender gap. Karina Larsen, vice-president of business development at Honeywell Aerospace, explained: “Companies must change workplace culture to ensure that women are climbing an equal career ladder to their male counterparts and are given the same opportunities. There is no longer any room for bias in the workplace.”

Having role models is also an important part of closing the STEM gender gap, as Shepherd pointed out: “I believe the biggest driver of more woman entering the engineering industry is having female role models to look up to – that make women think, ‘If they can do it, so can I.’ This relies on a band of individuals who are willing to step into male-dominated worlds, change perceptions and inspire a new generation of female engineers. This is a wonderful responsibility to be able to assume through working in this sector and has given me a unique sense of pride in my work.”

‘It is not just up to women to fix the gender gap – it is up to men, too’

Thieullent agreed that role models are critical to driving change but put an emphasis on these being both men and women. She said: “Role models are important for encouraging more women to consider careers in STEM. Male and female executives within the industry can use their voices to inspire women to consider these careers and explain why they are rewarding and worthwhile. It is not just up to women to fix the gender gap – it is up to men, too.”

Times are changing

While all of these executives acknowledged that the STEM industry has some way to go in reaching gender parity, they were positive about the progress that has been made.

“Under the leadership of our female president and CEO, Gitte Aabo, LEO Pharma prides itself on its pioneering work to shape medical dermatology,” said Reilly. “Within our organisation, women currently represent 41pc of our management positions globally, and will continue to increase this in 2019 and beyond, both through internal promotions and senior hires, but also through attracting emerging talent to diversify our workforce. There are some wonderful opportunities for women in STEM, particularly within the pharmaceutical industry – a world I’ve been part of for 21 years.”

Thieullent said: “Capgemini has a host of initiatives to support its female employees and to ensure we are empowered. The company understands that diversity is key to innovation and performance.

“One of our company’s principles is ‘equal opportunities, equal chances’ and this rings true in the treatment of employees.”

By Hannah Pisani

Hannah Pisani is a senior account executive at public relations firm We Worldwide.

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