Leading the way for women in STEM

Women in STEM by Honoris Staff Writer

Women around the world have long been held back by biases, social norms and expectations that influence the subjects they study. They are underrepresented particularly in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) careers.

The low numbers are not only because many women are not embarking in careers in these fields in the first place; for the women who do, they face myriad difficulties.

“Women are leaving tech fields in greater numbers than men. They cite workplace conditions, lack of access to creative roles and a stalled career as the primary reasons for their decision,” according to a new UNESCO report, To be smart, the digital revolution will need to be inclusive

Overcoming challenges

Due in part to these challenges, women are underrepresented in company leadership and technical roles, in both large corporations and start-ups. Even when women entrepreneurs lead start-ups in tech fields, they struggle to access venture capital and other forms of financial support. Two-thirds of African women entrepreneurs report access to finance as being the biggest barrier to starting a new business; only 18% are given bank loans and less than 2% access microfinance.

The position of women in academia globally is equally startling: “women tend to receive less grant funding, even though they are as productive as men. On an annual basis, they publish as much as men but are less likely to publish in high-profile journals or to be first or last authors. Women-authored publications receive fewer citations. Women are passed over for promotion.”

Despite these obstacles, women are inching closer to parity in science overall: “in higher education, they have achieved parity (45–55%) at the bachelor’s and master’s levels of study and are on the cusp at PhD level (44%). Women accounted for 33% of researchers in 2018, up from 28% in 2013. In many countries, they have achieved parity in life sciences, or even dominate the field.”

Women in the 4IR

While the upward trajectory overall is welcome, a more granular look at specific subjects reveals there is much urgent work to be done.

According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2020, only 12% of professionals in cloud computing are women, while in engineering it is 15% and in Data and AI it is 26%.

Africa generally follows the trend, with low numbers of women students and professionals in 4IR fields. South Africa, however, fares slightly better with 28% of professionals with AI skills being women.

These figures are particularly worrying because it is digital information technology, computing, physics, mathematics and engineering that are the key fields that are driving the Fourth Industrial Revolution and, thus, many of the jobs of tomorrow. Women are often also employees in jobs with a high risk of automation – and thus face a double risk of job loss and the inability to find new work due to lack of the necessary skills.

There is now a skills shortage in fields such as AI (which, incidentally, is also one of the highest paid STEM roles) – this is surely a perfect opportunity for women to step up and claim their future.

Charting the path for the benefit of society

Gender parity is not only advantageous for women, but for greater society, as the WEF explains: “Gender parity has a fundamental bearing on whether or not economies and societies thrive. Developing and deploying one-half of the world’s available talent has a huge bearing on the growth, competitiveness and future-readiness of economies and businesses worldwide.”

There are countless examples of women in science who have greatly benefitted society, and stand as role models for today’s young female scientists. Dr Wangari Muta Maathai (1940-2011) was the first female professor in her home country of Kenya, and was the first African female recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1977, she started and led the Green Belt Movement, which aims to counter deforestation.

Epidemiologist Professor Quarraisha Abdool Karim is known for her work in fighting the HIV epidemic in South Africa. Her scientific discoveries have contributed not only to better treatment but also to make women more self-reliant in risk prevention. She was awarded the top US breakthrough prize (Twas-Lenovo Prize) for developing-world scientists, and received South Africa’s highest honour, the Order of Mapungubwe.

Success in STEM

For women today looking to thrive in STEM careers, bias think tank Coqual has identified six key strategies that underpin success: be confident in your abilities; claim credit for your ideas; invest in peer networks; groom protégés to boost your own leadership talent and reputation; be authentic and true to who you are; nurture your personal brand by recognising your approach and value of your work.

There are organisations across Africa and the world that are working to boost women’s role in society through education, including in the sciences. Honoris United Universities, the first and biggest Pan-African private higher education network, has, for example, partnered with Women In Africa (WIA) Philanthropy to support entrepreneurship and women’s leadership – two major axes believed to hold the keys to transforming the African continent. Honoris United Universities in Morocco and WIA have previously organised bootcamps for exceptional women entrepreneurs from 54 countries across Africa.

Initiatives such as these aim to nurture and harness women’s leadership skills to tackle the big challenges of our time and uplift the continent. In keeping with the laudable aims of International Women’s Day, it is crucial that minimising gender imbalance, through innovative thinking and strenuous efforts at the government, academic and corporate levels, continues.

It is important not only to attract girls and women to STEM fields but, above all, to retain them. Then women have the opportunity to make their mark on the science and innovation of tomorrow.