Women in STEM: While some economic sectors are almost gender-equal, there is a large gender gap among scientists and engineers. This disparity manifests itself in some Member States and regions more than in others, for example, in Luxembourg women make up only 28% of all scientists and engineers. How can the EU tackle this inequality?
Chaired by Lillie Reynolds (IE)
‘The most damaging phrase in the English language is: It’s always been done that way.’– Grace Hopper, US-American computer scientist
The Topic at a Glance
Over the last decades, women have made significant advancements in education and the workplace, however, in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) sectors their advancements have been less striking. Despite the fact that women constitute almost 50% of the labour market, they make up just 30% of the ICT (information and communications technology) workforce and occupy less than 7% of tech positions in Europe. Why is this? Factors such as a shortage of female role models, persisting stereotypes, the gender pay gap, a lack of encouragement from teachers, a lack of practical experience, and sexism in the workplace perpetuate the gender gap among scientists and engineers. A survey of United Kingdom-based tech workplaces revealed that three in five women suffer discrimination based on their gender in the workplace. This happens in the form of receiving smaller salaries compared to their male colleagues, encountering bias during the interview process, and experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace. Combined, these factors prevent women from prospering in STEM fields and discourage them from entering this field in the first place.
But what is the problem with this gender gap? First of all, the fact that the people involved in the actual development of technology are predominantly male means that most technology is designed for men, instead of for the full range of its users. This not only takes out the diversity in the production process, but also leads to the product or services offered not being perfectly fitted for all genders. For example, artificial organs have typically been designed to primarily suit men. Furthermore, numerous studies have shown that an increase in gender diversity increases profit and creates better team dynamics. In terms of the economy, closing the STEM gap would lead to a EUR 610 billion to EUR 820 billion boost of the EU’s gross domestic product in 2050. Reducing the STEM gender gap is vital for the EU, as it could help decrease the gender skills gap, increase employment, close the gender wage gap, increase productivity, and reduce occupational segregation.
- A gender gap is the disparity between people of different genders in any area, including social, political, cultural, and economic attainments or attitudes.
- Gender stereotypes are preconceived ideas that arbitrarily assign women and men
characteristics and roles based on and limited by their sex.
- Bias is prejudice in favour of or against an idea, thing, or person, and it is generally considered to be unfair. Bias can be implicit (unconscious) or explicit (conscious).
- A skills gap refers to the difference between an employee’s skill set and the skills they require to carry out their job. It disproportionately affects women in STEM due to lack of access to and training in STEM skills.
- Occupational segregation is the division of workers on the basis of demographic characteristics, most commonly gender.
Member States are crucial actors when it comes to closing the gender gap among scientists and engineers. They are the ones responsible for creating relevant legislation to combat this problem, for example, in their education curricula and employment. They are also in charge of integrating into such legislation the resources and analytics provided by the European Commission. Since employment and social affairs is a shared competence between the EU and the Member States, the EU creates the necessary frameworks to safeguard workers’ rights, guaranteeing them protection from gender discrimination and equal employment opportunities. Member States’ national laws must reflect these frameworks. Some Member States have a more prominent gender gap in STEM fields than others. For example, in Lithuania, 57% of scientists and engineers are women compared to 25% in Hungary.
The Council of Europe (CoE) promotes women’s rights and gender equality and works on combating harmful stereotypes. For instance, its Gender Equality Commission provides advice and support to institutions and EU Member States. The European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) is an EU agency working to raise the issue of gender inequality. It provides research, data, and best practices by producing studies and collecting statistics about gender equality in the EU. The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) helps to ensure that the fundamental rights of people living in the EU are protected and provides independent, evidence-based assistance and expertise on many issues including gender equality to the Member States.
UN Women supports UN Member States as they set global standards for achieving gender equality, and works with Member States to design the laws, policies, programmes, and services needed to ensure that these standards are effectively implemented and truly benefit women and girls worldwide.
STEM corporations are responsible for promoting and employing a gender balanced workforce. While some companies run internal programs to support gender balance, like Amazon, these are still a minority. Other corporates, like Google and Facebook, informally support such efforts via sponsorships of other initiatives aiming to encourage women to enter STEM fields.
Figure 1: The Key Stakeholders of the Topic.
Let’s not have a double standard. One standard will do just fine.
Gender biases and stereotypes are prevalent in STEM fields, which can create obstacles for the progression of women in STEM careers and studies as well as impact their appeal to women and girls. These stereotypes include the belief that men perform better in STEM subjects such as maths and science. Women are also frequently seen as less likely to have the qualities needed to be successful in STEM. Companies therefore, may discriminate against women in the hiring or recruitment process. The large implications of stereotypes stem from girls fearing they might not be treated equally and have to work harder to convince their peers as well as employers to achieve the same career steps as their male counterparts. In particular, information technology experts are normally pictured as men in the media, causing some to believe that women are not suitable for the field due to biological or cognitive differences, despite there being no proof for this claim.
Education, education, education.
Considering that many of the factors that act as a barrier for women in STEM are directly linked to education, it seems intuitive for the EU to direct their focus to this sector. School environments, meaning both students and teachers, still often hold an unconscious belief that girls have less talent for STEM compared to boys. This, combined with the belief that STEM needs innate talent allegedly not possessed by girls, may lead to the lack of encouragement and support for girls in STEM subjects. The stereotyping in education has vast implications and contributes to the low percentage of women graduating in STEM. Keeping in mind that girls lose interest and confidence in STEM the older they get, the emphasis of countermeasures should be put on all levels of education. There is a direct correlation between practical experiences a girl receives during her education and her interest in STEM. Yet, 39% say they do not get enough hands-on experience. How can an inclusive STEM education be achieved to help young women build their skills and confidence in this sector?
In a rich man’s world…
Additionally, women tend to be offered lower salaries and fewer opportunities for promotion and have lower access to research funding. Employers are often concerned that women will start a family and take parental leave, and therefore be less available to work on long-term projects or extraordinary hours. They therefore discriminate against women already in the hiring or recruitment process. Research has shown that encouragement is important for the career progress of women. Access to mentoring from senior figures is an important factor for women in tech to gain more confidence and experience. However, in tech, there are very few female figures in high-level jobs to make this change happen in a significant way. This reflects gender discrimination and does not encourage women to stay in the tech industry or enter it in the first place.
Measures in Place
In 2020, the European Commission adopted the European Skills Agenda/New Skills Agenda for Europe which builds upon the Commission’s 2016 skills agenda. This agenda is a five year- plan to up- and reskill Europeans citizens according to recent economic changes. It recognises the current mismatch of skills the labour field is seeking and those job-seekers have, and therefore aims to obtain a minimum level of digital skills for all jobseekers. Yet, it is focused on the general workforce and, thus, lacks an emphasis on STEM education.
Acquiring these skills could be an important step towards reaching gender equality in the STEM field. Digital opportunity traineeships, an initiative set up by the European Commission, offered traineeships at different companies to students and recent graduates in the digital field between 2018 and 2020. Even though it was not directly focused on women it still provided them with practical experience and with the opportunity to gain more confidence in the field.
All Member States have signed the Women in Digital Declaration, encouraging women to play an active role in the digital and technology sectors. They have therein committed themselves to work closely with the public and private sectors to achieve equality in tech on a national level. Gender equality (Article 23) and non-discrimination (Article 21) are fundamental principles of the EU, protected in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). National education curriculas vary greatly between Member States. Some countries, like Finland, already have integrated coding and computer science as a bigger part of their national curricula to further practical experience and equal opportunities in STEM. Furthermore, more than half of the European education systems have introduced digital competence in primary education, either integrated into or as a compulsory separate subject.
Outside of legislation and frameworks, various campaigns are furthering the representation of role models for women and girls to inspire them to pursue their interest in STEM. Codeweek, an annual event supported by the European Commission, trains thousands of girls to code and sparks their interest in the digital field. The European Commission also established #EUwomen4future campaign, which features women in STEM.
- Considering the existing stereotypes and bias women face in STEM sectors, how can the EU and its Member States provide adequate support to its female citizens?
- In light of the vast need for gender equality in STEM, should Member States continue operating independently or consider enforcing a more coordinated approach tackling inequality in the workplace as well as in education?
- How can the Member States promote female STEM professionals as role models?
- What steps should STEM companies take in order to eliminate gender bias in the hiring process and ensure a safe and gender-friendly workspace?
- Accessible video explaining why there are so few women in STEM and how to engage more girls in STEM, 2018, Ecology Project International (essential watching).
- An article exploring the reasons why girls remain a minority in studying the STEM subjects, 2018, The Guardian/Nathalia Gjersoe (essential reading).
- An article about the persisting problems regarding recruiting women to STEM fields, 2019, CNN/AJ Willingham.
- An opinion on the current situation of women in STEM, 2021, Euractive/Mariya Gabriel.
- Accessible infographic summarising the topic, 2016, Debating Europe.