Bridging the Gender Gap in STEM

Gender equality in STEM studies and careers is improving too slowly, resulting in a loss of talent that we can no longer afford

Woman working with computers

Women remain under-represented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) studies and careers – Photo by ThisisEngineering on Unsplash

By Gisela Hansen – When it comes to gender equality, the 2030 Agenda has a vision: that of a world “in which all women and girls enjoy full equality and all legal, social and economic barriers to their empowerment have been eliminated”

This  statement is quite inspiring, however, based on UN data (2022), at the current rate of progress it will take up to 286 years to close existing gaps in legal protection and eliminate discriminatory laws and 140 years to achieve equal representation in positions of power and leadership in the workplace.

Today, despite efforts to increase women’s participation in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) careers, the figures still reflect a significant gender gap. Less than 30% of the world’s researchers are women (UNESCO, 2022). Worldwide, about 35% of students enrolled in higher education in STEM fields are women (UNESCO). However, this figure can vary significantly between countries and between specific disciplines within STEM, falling as low as 10% in engineering.

Importantly, addressing these inequalities remains a major challenge in the quest for gender equality in education and employment.

In an increasingly digitalized world, jobs require a range of technical skills, so the low participation of women in STEM reinforces structural inequalities by undermining opportunities to enter sectors with greater social validation and, above all, better pay.

We had the pleasure of meeting with leading women in the field to discuss the current situation, the challenges they face and their proposals to reduce the gender gap in STEM:

  • Vanesa Daza PhD, Doctor of Mathematics and expert in cryptography, blockchain and cybersecurity, professor and researcher at Pompeu Fabra University (UPF, Barcelona),
  • Mercedes León, Business Operations Senior Manager at Oracle, one of the world’s largest software companies,
  • Loli Yagüe, Technology Domain Leader & Architect – Database at Oracle,
  • Maria Luz Sanmartín Fita, Mathematics graduate and secondary school teacher.

Women and STEM: under-representation and loss of talent

Mercedes León and Loli Yagüe addressed the challenges faced by women and girls in STEM disciplines and initiatives to promote gender equality in these fields.

Citing data from the Spanish National Institute of Statistics – they noted that around 35% of students in higher education in STEM disciplines are women, although this figure varies significantly depending on the type of degree. Vanessa Daza points out that in the university environment, the average number of women on engineering courses in general is 20 per cent. In addition, as Mercedes and Loli commented, they observed that adding the word “engineering” to the name of any university degree automatically led to a decrease in the number of women enrolled, suggesting the persistence of gender stereotypes that permeate career choices.

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When analyzing data from formally egalitarian societies – those where there is equality in law, but not necessarily in practice – gender disparities are evident in the representation of women in STEM leadership roles.

According to a report by the European Commission, only 24% of senior management positions in technology companies in Europe are held by women.

The barriers for women and girls in STEM are also reflected in the gender pay gap. Data from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) shows that, on average, women earn about 20% less than men in STEM occupations worldwide.

As for the most obvious manifestation of inequality, a recent study by the Society of Women Engineers in the United States found that 40% of female engineers experienced gender discrimination in the workplace.  According to Vanesa Daza, “You go into a field where you know that the reality is going to be a masculinized working environment and that our realities are not seen as natural as they should be, and that shapes your daily life and can influence your decisions”. The UPF professor also tells us that when girls enter STEM careers, they have brilliant profiles and tend to graduate, increasing the female presence in the classroom, but it is still a small percentage compared to boys.

Women in leadership roles

According to the Global Gender Gap Report (2022), the global share of women in leadership roles was 31% in 2022, although shares vary by industry (24% in technology) – Photo by Mapbox on Unsplash

María Luz Sanmartín Fita echoes Vanesa’s comments, pointing out that in her experience as a secondary school maths teacher, the academic results of boys and girls in technical and scientific subjects are very similar, with boys not standing out in terms of grades. However, she adds that “there is a lot of insecurity among girls about this kind of knowledge, about whether they are doing well or whether they will fit into these fields, and this largely determines their choice of university careers”.

Gender, childhood and upbringing: The origins of inequality

According to Mercedes León and Loli Yagüe, girls are exposed from an early age to gender stereotypes that suggest that STEM subjects are not for them, which influences their educational and career choices. These ideas are reinforced, as Vanesa Daza tells us, in infant and primary education: for example, teachers and families are likely to believe that a boy is good at maths because he is a boy. By the same token, they’ll think a girl is doing badly in the same subject because she’s a girl. “As long as we have teachers transmitting these gender stereotypes associated with STEM from such an early age, we will continue to have this problem,” stresses Vanesa.

The lack of female role models in STEM makes it even more difficult for girls to see these careers as viable life options. As Maria Luz Sanmartín Fita points out: “The lack of female role models is not confined to school textbooks, but also applies to universities, leadership positions and even advocacy initiatives”.

Gender bias and discrimination also persist. The caring role associated with women continues to construct a specific imaginary of feminine or masculine expectations – childcare or caring professions for the former, engineering and technical professions for the latter – while this discrimination is compounded in the workplace by a lack of support for work-life balance needs, creating barriers for women to enter and progress in STEM.

Once in STEM careers, women face comparisons with their peers, lack of access to mentors and resources, and limited opportunities for personal development, say Mercedes and Loli. To overcome these barriers, it is crucial to provide girls with an environment that fosters confidence in themselves and their abilities, as well as the opportunity to learn about the practical applications of STEM careers from an early age.

All interviewees emphasized the importance of starting in childhood, challenging gender stereotypes through parenting and the choice of toys that encourage diverse skills, as well as the messages and attitudes we convey as adults.

Positive action to close the gap: the Oracle4Girls project

Loli Yagüe highlighted the Oracle4Girls (O4G) project, which offers exclusive workshops for girls to introduce them to STEM and create a comfortable and supportive environment where they can experiment and learn. Also mentioned were initiatives such as Oracle4Teachers and ‘Reinvénta-Tech’, which have a direct impact on women’s employability.

Mercedes León recalls that “The Oracle4Girls project started in 2017 when we came to realize how difficult it was to attract female talent. Girls don’t apply for positions if they don’t have 100% of the requirements that are asked for. On the other hand, we found much more variability among male applicants, who apply even if they don’t tick all the boxes. From a very early age, boys are much more encouraged to dare, to try, than girls”.

Oracle4Girls

The Oracle4Girls initiative proposes technological workshops aimed at girls aged 4 to 16. Girls acan enjoy a fun and creative tech experience that aims to awaken vocations for ICT careers – Photo: snapshot, Oracle4Girls website, all rights reserved

Mercedes and Loli say that they felt that they had to do something about it at Oracle and that the best way was to bring STEM closer to girls with activities exclusively targeting them. Both comment on the importance of girls-only spaces: if they were mixed, they point out, all workshops would soon be full, with a large majority of boys, thus perpetuating the same pattern. One of the key elements of the project is to enable the girls to have fun, and above all to feel secure and comfortable.

As Loli Yagüe points out: “there is an impressive group atmosphere, where the girls can be relaxed, where they can share, ask questions and create an essential bond of belonging, all thanks to the hundreds of volunteers without whose effort, work and enthusiasm the Oracle4Girls project could not exist”.

Creating safe spaces and environments for girls is essential, says Mercedes León: “We cannot treat boys and girls equally if they start from unequal situations from the cradle. This year we have lowered the age of participation to 4 years, because we believe that the earlier the better. In addition, the activity takes place in universities, where they see the rooms, they are in the classrooms and they do the activity in the labs, and this excites them a lot”.

Oracle4Girls logo

Other initiatives

Vanesa Daza also mentions other actions dedicated to bridging the gender gap, among which she explains her participation in initiatives promoted by the Catalan Foundation for Research and Innovation, such as the “100tíficas” project, in which she shares her own experience with primary and secondary school students. Vanesa is particularly committed and concerned about the low presence of women in the world of cybersecurity, which motivated her to present the ARTEMISA International Chair to the Spanish Cybersecurity Institute.

The Chair has a high research and social impact component, where the main focus is on promoting activities to reduce the gender gap in the field. In addition to strengthening teaching, research and knowledge transfer in the public and private sectors, the Chair aims to promote the social culture of cybersecurity and generate vocations in this sector, especially among girls and young people.

The chair sponsors workshops and activities, such as a trilogy of books for primary school children about a young girl who is an ethical hacker. Vanessa emphasizes the immersive nature of reading and the mirror it holds up to us. That’s why it’s important for girls to be exposed to more diversity and references. Finally, she stresses the need to make women scientists and their contributions throughout history much more visible than they currently are in textbooks.

Promoting equity, a collective effort by all stakeholders

Gender equality in STEM studies and careers is improving too slowly, resulting in a loss of talent that we can no longer afford. Reversing this situation will require a profound change in the transmission of gender stereotypes in our society, from families, schools, the media, the scientific community, and so on. These stereotypes begin to develop at birth and are reinforced at all stages of education.

According to María Luz Sanmartín Fita, it is necessary to “pay greater attention to the spaces occupied by children, where boys usually have a privileged position from the earliest stages, to use inclusive language and to study female references with names and surnames in all fields and areas of knowledge, and to make young people aware of gender inequalities in access to and progress in this type of study”.

Promoting gender equality in STEM also means giving visibility to women at the forefront of the sector and creating safe, non-masculinized environments that foster diverse talent. Mercedes León insists that the future is digital by nature, so it is essential that girls and women have access to and participate in this ever-evolving field. Vanesa Daza adds: “In the field of cybersecurity in particular, a 360-degree view is essential, and the more eyes and diversity there are, the better the result will be”.

In conclusion, promoting gender equality in STEM requires a comprehensive approach that tackles gender stereotypes from childhood, creates inclusive and supportive environments, and provides equal opportunities for education and career development.

With collective commitment and action, we can close the gender gap in STEM and harness all human talent to succeed in the digital future!