Post provided by Chloe Robinson

Girls and women make up half of the world’s population and therefore contribute to half of the talent and potential on our planet. Despite representing 3.9 billion people, women are yet to receive the equal rights and opportunities which are currently provided to men. As of 2014, 143 out of 195 countries guarantee equality of women and men in their constitutions, but in practice this is rarely achieved for women.  

Gender equality symbol.

International Women’s Day is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating women’s equality. This year, the theme is #EachforEqual, highlighting that an equal world is an enabled world. One of the key missions for this theme is forging inclusive workplaces so women can thrive’. This is particularly important for retaining women in STEM fields. Ultimately this mission needs to start in schools, because girls as young as 10 are reported to feel ‘out of place‘ in STEM subjects.

This blog post features some of the initiatives aiming to retain girls in STEM fields and shines a light on how far we have to go before girls and women are treated and represented equally in STEM.

Breaking the Stereotype of STEM

Women can face many forms of discrimination, including place of birth, religion and sexual orientation to name a few. These layers of gender discrimination can manifest in many ways, one of which is employment. Women typically earn between 10 and 30% less than their male counterparts. This pay gap is largest in STEM fields.

A better representation of girls in STEM is needed.

If you search for ‘scientist’ or ‘engineer’ on a search engine, you’d likely get images heavily dominated by older Caucasian men in lab coats. Books, advertisements and television programmes also feature this gender disparity. These persistent and mostly subconscious projections of male scientists and mathematicians – coupled with the lower levels of representation for females in those professions – ultimately widens the achievement gap of girls and boys in STEM subjects.  These stereotypes and cultural norms are known to act as barriers to girls’ interest in STEM subjects.

Ultimately, breaking these stereotypes of what a scientist/technologist/engineer/mathematician should look like is one of the key ways to encourage girls to remain interested and to continue studying in STEM. Broadening the representation of people who work in STEM, the work itself, and the environments in which STEM careers are focused significantly increases girls’ sense of belonging and interest in the field. A couple of simple ways to achieve this in schools are by including images of females in STEM in classroom materials and featuring key female STEM achievers as case studies.

Ways to increase women’s and girls’ interests in STEM fields. Photo: UNESCO.

A more difficult, but arguably more important, approach is for teachers to self-reflect on the implicit bias they may be projecting onto the students in their care. Implicit stereotypes by teachers could impact how they instruct and assess their students, which further contributes to the gender gap in their classrooms.

Women STEM Role Models and Initiatives

The ability for young girls to see themselves represented in women actively working in STEM and understand the journey of how to follow a STEM career path is pivotal for retaining girls in STEM. Role models are often a main feature of initiatives aimed at encouraging girls and women to continue in STEM.

She can STEM is a STEM diversity campaign launched in 2018. It aims to give visibility to women currently leading the world of STEM so girls can see they have a future in it too. This campaign has been successful in engaging girls across the world through showcasing 50 female STEM role models.  

Another key initiative is Geeky Girl Reality, which provides a vital platform for women in STEM to share their stories and advice through interview-style profiles. In addition to featuring role models, Geeky Girl Reality is dedicated to helping young women and girls connect with inclusive STEM related employers and opportunities through a job and gig board.

Geeky Girl Reality features a blog showcasing women in STEM.

Providing a hub of STEM opportunities is important for young girls progressing through higher education. One of the main psychological reasons women do not persist as far in STEM careers as men in higher education is lack of confidence. Having opportunities to gain hands-on experience in STEM-related fields at the school level, enables the reinforcement of abilities and improves self-confidence, which, going forward, is critical for retaining girls in STEM.

Many Barriers but Countless Opportunities

The barriers to girls and women persisting in STEM consist of a combination of societal and psychological challenges. It’s clear that there are many opportunities to tackle the STEM gender bias from an early age at the cultural, educational and individual levels.

Collective individualism is the notion behind the 2020 campaign theme for International Women’s Day. The fact that our individual actions, conversations, behaviours and mindsets can have an impact on our larger society, is very fitting with the theme of retaining girls in STEM. Collectively, we can make change happen through challenging our own perceptions of people in STEM, through sharing our stories of persistence in STEM subjects and through empowering young girls to believe in themselves and fulfill their potentials.