IWD 2023: Moving towards gender equity in STEM careers
This year, the United Nations has themed International Women's Day as 'DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality' to recognise that digital equity enables female empowerment. The UN's 2022 Gender Snapshot report reveals that "women's exclusion from the digital world has shaved $1 trillion from the gross domestic product of low- and middle-income countries".
The campaign to encourage girls into STEM subjects is an admirable one, but there's more to gender equity than education alone. Education lays a good foundation for gender equity, but it's what happens socially in the classroom and beyond that makes all the difference to gender equity in STEM careers.
From 'girls in STEM'…
According to a STEM gender equity report by the Australian Department of Industry, Science and Resources, the number of women enrolling in university STEM courses "increased by 24% between 2015 and 2020". The campaign to encourage girls into STEM courses has had a positive effect.
However, something happens in university that tends to set the scene for a woman's career. Many female readers will be familiar with the pressure that comes from being the 'only girl', or one of very few, in a technology course. The burdens include:
- Assumption: battling negative stereotypes about intelligence and ability
- Representation: the few become representative of all women
- Assimilation: the effort to defeminise to deflect extra attention.
These take up headspace that's better spent on study. Even when women do more work to prove themselves, they need to expend a higher degree of effort just to be considered equivalent to the average man, no matter what their marks say.
Now imagine this and add an intersectional lens: I am neurodivergent, queer, and a person of colour. I differed so much from the cohort – largely white, neurotypical, cishet male students (even the men who are in minorities were a very small group) – that my biggest lesson in university was to embrace myself and be proud.
When it comes to gender equality and equity, the discussion is usually focused solely on the differences between men and women, ignoring all other aspects of people's identities. While it may not seem relevant at first glance, this kind of thinking takes feminism through a white lens. Things like race, sexuality, and disabilities are intrinsic parts of our identities and can't be dissected and discussed separately when it comes to equality, as they affect all aspects of our lives. Though there is still a large gap between women in STEM, the vast majority of those women are white. By ignoring race and other social factors from the equation, we inadvertently reduce the conversation to talking specifically about white, neurotypical cishet women. While we have a long way to go for women in STEM, women of different races and sexuality are even further behind. When talking about equality for women, we need to be talking about all women.
Today when I speak with women about getting into STEM, I recognise that it can be an intimidating experience to be 'othered'. I recommend building your self-esteem, building your skills and knowledge and then turning that attention into something you can use. You're the only woman in the room? Know that you command attention – that's a powerful thing.
… to gender equity in STEM careers
Women make up less than a third of the workforce across all STEM industries. They earn 18% less than men, and less than a quarter of the senior management tier are women. This suggests that even if opportunities exist, they are not equitably distributed.
There are a few things that women should know before they enter the workplace. The first is that being self-driven takes you a long way. Pursue areas you're interested in, even if you don't have the skills (yet) and push yourself into things to slowly build up your interests. Also, know that very few people, including men, know exactly what they're doing when they first start their career, so confidence – even if you have to fake it until you make it – is key here.
Specific to STEM is the fact that technology is changing all the time, so what you've learnt in university can actually be new to someone who has even 40 years of experience. This means you can be a valuable asset even as a graduate. If possible, seek mentorship, especially from more experienced women who can help show you the way through.
Further to that, there are so many variations in STEM careers that experience only goes so far. In programming specifically, no two developers do things the same way, and no one can learn it all, so no matter your age or gender, you always have something to offer. It's easy to become narrow-minded, so diversity in the team is a real asset. Your perspective plays a large role in being successful.
Once you're more established, pay it forward by encouraging other women and girls and offering mentorship. Join online communities, make friends and build your network. Leave nice comments online: publicly support and champion other women in STEM.
One of the contributing factors to equity will be funding in the right place with a focus on giving incentives to universities and businesses to bring on women in STEM.
The Australian Government and the UN have already recognised that restricting female education restricts innovation and technological advancement, so targeting young girls from early education to high school is important. In Australia, however, the focus on digital education isn't there yet. The government knows it's important but doesn't fund it according to how important it is, so there needs to be a sharper focus on this.
But beyond funding, there's still the question of creating the right social environment for gender equity in STEM careers. Right now, the stereotype remains that women in STEM are less talented and less intelligent and even considered a token inclusion when it's often the case that they've had to work harder just to secure their first role. Uncoupling this from the workplace environment will take effort and time.
We need both fronts – funding for girls in STEM but also respect for women in STEM careers – to achieve gender equity across the board. I don't think I will see a fully equal industry in my lifetime, but I would like us to get closer to 50/50 in the near future.
I have used 'women', 'girls' and 'female' throughout this article based on the research cited and my own experience; however, I recognise there are transgender and gender non-binary people in tech who experience similar barriers. It is not my intent to exclude them from this discussion but to avoid speaking for them.