Why women avoid careers in STEM
An introduction to the way women are being deterred from pursuing careers in STEM and tech.
About 74% of young girls express an interest in STEM subjects and computer science. Why then, do women still receive only 28% of science degrees and occupy only 11% of executive roles in Silicon Valley?
Sarah Wood is a co-founder of video advertising company Unruly. She knocks the nail on the head describing not an ability gap, but a confidence gap. Nicola Mendelsohn is vice-president at Facebook for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. She also reflects on being scared of speaking up in meetings and saying the wrong thing when she was starting out.
‘Someone else- usually a man- would then suggest the exact same idea and get praised for it. If only I’d been braver.’
Women who make it to the top have proven themselves capable. Female-led companies statistically perform three times better than ones with male CEOs. So it seems self-belief is something that’s getting in the way and contributing to this gender gap in tech.
Why don’t girls choose STEM subjects?
Going back further, why do we have such a lack of girls choosing to study STEM subjects? Is it that we are stuck in limbo between moving society forwards and doing the same old thing? Some research studies reveal that many Muslim majority countries with less stable economies actually have a much smaller gender gap among STEM fields than the U.S.. Elizabeth Weingarten suggests this could be down to a combination of factors. Children in developed countries are able and encouraged to ‘follow their passion’ regarding career choice. At the same time, they come under very binary informal influences around gender in other aspects from a very early age.
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Similarly, Graham Kendall explores what he calls ‘The geek effect’. It explains how the portrayal is still of computer scientists and web developers as ‘nerds with no social skills and pale complexions’. These kind of stereotypes don’t present careers in STEM and tech jobs in an appealing way to women. So when it comes down to choosing studies and careers we can see why girls gravitate away from them. In countries such as Tunisia, Jordan and Malaysia, rates of women in STEM are higher. Due to higher unemployment rates (and different exam formats), girls and boys alike are pushed towards more lucrative fields.
So it seems even though we have made steps towards gender equality in some ways, there need to be some wider social shifts to reprogram the informal influence on girls that causes them to choose (and enjoy) certain spheres.
What can we do now?
How can we give girls confidence, stop them self excluding and get them excited about tech? Perhaps what we need is a rebranding. Make STEM subjects cool and normal for girls. Community programs and initiatives can be a good place to start, especially from a young age. In the U.S., Girl Scouts have started to introduce girls to STEM. This allows girls to explore the field without pressure or comparisons to their male class mates.
A community organisation, Project 18, has helped Omaha rank in 2017 as the 18th best city for women in tech (hence name Project 18). It’s female led, by and for women in tech, teaching women coding and about new technologies. It allows women to meet other developers and females interested in tech. We also need to hear from and shout about the women that are already in the field so girls have real models and can really envisage themselves being part of this multi million dollar pie.
Look out for our 3Plus series of profiles on successful women working in STEM, coming soon.
If we can support the growth of such programs to promote careers in STEM globally, and increase the support network and communication between the women currently in the sphere, locally and online, we can start to reduce the still stark gender gap in the world of tech.