Women & STEM – Closing the Gender Gap

Women & STEM – Closing the Gender Gap

626 500 Urmi Bhattacharjee

Gender representation of women in the workplace has always been skewed. History has been a witness. And the representation of women in traditionally male-dominated STEM fields, i.e., Science, Technology, Math, and Engineering, is no different.

The statistics are painfully dismal when it comes to women representation in STEM.

• Only 30% of the world’s researchers, on average, are women. And less than one-third of female students select STEM-related fields in their higher education.
• In certain fields like Information and communication technology (ICT), women joining is only 3% globally, while for engineering, manufacturing, and construction courses, it is 8%.
• Only one in seven engineers worldwide are female
• Not all women who are trained in STEM are EMPLOYED as scientists or engineers
• Women make 45% of the total Singapore workforce and 50% of students in universities. Yet, the number of women is disproportionately low. As per IMDA in 2016, 200,000 employees joined the Infocomm industry, and only 30% comprised of women workforce. 

Source: Girls In Tech

NRF fellowship is granted to researchers in Singapore for carrying out independent research. From below statistics it is clear indicates that till date ony 22% of Women are awarded with NRF fellowship. 

Source: MBI

In the last 5 years, we saw very marginal increase in women pursuing STEM careers, if any. I believe the main reason for the gap starts from the lack of women taking up STEM as a field of study. This is mainly driven by aspirations moulded by social norms and parental influence, that boys are better than girls in subjects such as mathematics and science – with biases leading to natural selection and dropouts of women in these fields.

– Soh Siew Choo, DBS’ group head of consumer banking and big data analytics technology

Society still has this unconscious bias — a woman who has a more feminine appearance and conventionally “pretty” is unfit for science! Society’s general perception of women in STEM is reflected in the onscreen representation of women in the US film industry. A 2015 study by Geena Davis institute study – “Gender Bias without borders” revealed that in the US film industry, just 12% of onscreen characters were women. Much like the rest of the world, gender Bias in STEM continues to cripple women in Asia.

Even when Singapore is famous for its meritorious students in international mathematics and science tests (TIMSS), women are strikingly less in number in STEM fields. The Ministry of Education showed that the intake of women in STEM degrees accounts for around 25-35 percent of the total intake, though in the last 5 years, there has been a minor increase in STEM numbers. The root cause of under-representation that explains the gender prejudice towards women in STEM fields lies in history.

First, women didn’t have access to higher studies even during the early modern period unless they came from wealthy, educated or apprised families. Women were not allowed to discuss Mathematics or natural philosophy with men in equal footing or allowed to undertake an official position. Women writers and philosophers have even used male pseudonyms to write on various subjects. Philosopher Herbert Spencer is said to have denied “the very existence of a woman mathematician.” The 18th century, which was considered the Age of Reason, first acknowledged women in science, when Newtonian physicist Laura Bassi became the first woman professor in the world to receive doctorate in science. Post the age of reason and enlightenment came the 19th and 20th centuries. Women first saw a career path in science and made brilliant contributions to science in genetics, astronomy, biochemistry, and physics. British geneticist Rebecca Saunders and biochemist Muriel Wheldale were trained in research labs designed especially for women from Newnham and Girton colleges at Cambridge. Women were not allowed in university laboratories.

The type of challenges may have changed today in the sense that education in women is no longer seen as a taboo. Nevertheless, challenges remain.

History has been a witness that intelligence is somehow considered a masculine trait. Today, even in the 21st century, society still succumbs to such stereotypes. The reasons for lopsided gender representation of women in the STEM field today are not much different than what it was historically. Gender stereotypes, societal conventions, prejudice, sexism, and bias are still the culprit.

Source: Freepik

Ironically, women made significant contributions to science, albeit with lesser accolades than their male peers. From Merit-Ptah — the Egyptian woman and earliest known female scientist named in the history of science to women like Katherine Johnson -NASA Space Scientist, Susan Kare- Iconographer or Nobel Prize-winning Geneticist Barbara McClintock — women in STEM have been making significant contributions to the world.

Challenges faced by Women & Girls 

Women still face differential barriers while entering STEM fields even when they are not deficient in their capacity or merit.

Performance Pressure and Anxiety

Capabilities of women are more subjected to harsh judgments given the fixated pre-set ideas that consider women unworthy of great achievements in science and technology. It leads to women working twice as hard to prove their worth. Research in Cambodia found that women are often shaky and anxious in these subjects even when they have the right knowledge. This only increases as women scale-up in rank and position in STEM-related fields. Eventually, the need for constant validation, the pressure to prove in an atmosphere of sexism and bias results in burnout. 

Pregnancy and Motherhood

Retaining women in lifelong research careers in the STEM field is a global challenge. A study has found that 40 percent of women, as opposed to 23 percent of men, leave their jobs or switch to part-time STEM-employment after the birth of the first child. 28% less likely than those without to be placed in tenure-track positions. The gap or break due to motherhood is often taken as a permanent departure from their career. Societal stereotypes somehow consider when parenting is a priority; there is no focus left for science.

The Infamous Pay Gap

Furthermore, women working in STEM fields publish less and often receive less pay. They often form part of softer skill workforce like the Healthcare and Human Resource which are traditionally low income roles. This concern is not just limited to the STEM field but in every field, globally.  However women are increasing pursuing eduation in the male-dominating sectors and paving their way to newer and challenging boundaries.  

Source: Randstad

The Odd One Out Feeling

Clear under-representation of women in STEM leads to an unbalanced gender-ratio in workplaces. Even as individual contributors, women need to attend various advanced training, conferences, and seminars where women are sparse and far in-between in number. Often, this leads to women feeling uncomfortable and being alien in a group – a work situation no one wants to be in.

Lack of Role Models

Most students grow up idolizing their heroes and wish to be like them when they grow up. In the UK, Microsoft research has found that women with role models in STEM are more inclined to take up STEM. Sadly, when it comes to women, the famous role models remain restricted to the fields of glamour and creativity. For one, there is a much lesser number of women in STEM fields. Women who succeed in STEM fields are much less celebrated and acknowledged than their male counterparts. In Asia, there are very few notable female leaders like Grab’s Co-Founder Tan Hooi Ling and founder of SoGal Ventures, Pocket Sun, who serves as role models and paving way for the future female leaders. 

Gender Discrimination

Gender discrimination is still painfully real in workplaces. A study showed that women STEM faculty reported more gender discrimination than men, with 59 percent of women reporting no gender discrimination as opposed to 96 percent of men reported experiencing no gender discrimination. Based on UNESCO research, the performance in STEM subjects shifts during the teens, and the driving factor for this behaviour is mostly due to social bias, educational material, dynamics within the classroom and economic opportunities. As per PWC study, worldwide only 32% of women graduate in STEM field.  

Ways to close this Gender Gap

First and foremost, it is the public consciousness that has to be reset. The historical success of women in various STEM fields needs to be acknowledged and celebrated. Today it is the world of innovation and automation. So clear under-representation of women in any field, including STEM, would be a clear loss of workforce and a hindrance to a nation’s maximum growth potential. UNESCO has recognized gender equality and access to science as human rights in the Universal Declaration of Human rights. The society must understand that women thinking differently than men doesn’t automatically mean they have inferior thought. Women add more diversity and dimension that expands the scope of more sustainable socially-relevant solutions. As per Forrester, market research organization, companies with gender diversity are 21% more likely to have higher financial return. 

STEM fields should be more accommodating and supportive towards women with returning careers after child-birth or motherhood gap. The differential barriers faced by women at the entry-level have to be dissolved. The training gap in fast-moving science, technology, and innovation needs to be bridged with special training for women who return after motherhood. It is also important to promote women achievers in science to become role models for future females.

Changes are slow and steady as the world today counts on women for actionable solutions to several global concerns like food, security, and environmental sustainability. There are many global efforts to encourage women in stem. The Singapore Committee for United Nations Women has come up with the ‘Girls To Pioneer ‘program to engage actively and rebuild the interest of girls towards STEM fields. The European Commission has estimated that closing their gender gap in STEM could result in the European Union economy gaining by €820 billion gains by 2050. World today is getting aware of the perks of more representation of women in STEM. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development aims to look at gender bias in STEM more holistically, work out innovative strategies with global thinkers, and monitor gender equality progress. Companies like L’oreal have implemented a Chatbot, MYA, which are programmed for asking objective questions without any unconscious bias by the recruiters.

Also women should leverage on STEM Scholarships available that are specific to them – Google Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship, Society of Women Engineers and many more.

Though it is going to be a long journey in gender equality in STEM, it is good that the concern has been identified, and concerted efforts are being taken.

To rise to the challenges of the 21st century, we need to harness our full potential. That requires dismantling gender stereotypes. On this International Day of Women and Girls in Science, let’s pledge to end the gender imbalance in science.

– UN Secretary-General António Guterres

Urmi Bhattacharjee

Urmi Bhattacharjee is a journalist and media strategist. She is a former TV reporter with a popular Media House in India and a Red Ink awardee. She is a former fellow of the prestigious US exchange program IVLP and is passionate about environmental causes. Urmi is also a trained Kathak dancer and swears by yoga for best mind and body fitness.

All stories by:Urmi Bhattacharjee
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Urmi Bhattacharjee

Urmi Bhattacharjee is a journalist and media strategist. She is a former TV reporter with a popular Media House in India and a Red Ink awardee. She is a former fellow of the prestigious US exchange program IVLP and is passionate about environmental causes. Urmi is also a trained Kathak dancer and swears by yoga for best mind and body fitness.

All stories by:Urmi Bhattacharjee