Break the bias: how we can empower more women in STEM

On International Women’s Day there are calls for more to be done to increase female representation in STEM industries.

Break the bias: how we can empower more women in STEM

The founder of Women in Tech has called for more to be done to raise the profile of women in STEM in order to encourage young girls to consider qualifications and careers in STEM industries, and educate men about the value that they bring.

Her call comes after a new report revealed that the more women working in a STEM field the more likely it is to be perceived as a ‘soft science’. The report1 by US-based academic researchers highlights a concern that subjects perceived in this way were devalued by people, who saw them as being less rigorous, less trustworthy and less deserving of funding.

Ayumi Moore Aoki, founder of the global not-for-profit organisation that aims to empower girls and women and close the gender divide in STEM fields, agrees the bias against women has to be countered but primarily by increasing the levels of female participation.

She says: “Personally I don’t have experience of STEM disciplines with strong female representation being ‘devalued’ but I do know that UN and World Economic Forum statistics show that women are still under-represented in STEM roles globally and, on average, comprise less than 20% of people working in those disciplines.”

A growing divide

“And worryingly,” she asserts, “the gap between men and women in tech has grown over the past four decades. There were proportionately more women involved in tech in the 70s and 80s. As computer science became more economically important and powerful it attracted more men while women were increasingly marginalised.”

A major factor in female under-representation in STEM roles is what she calls the ‘leaky pipeline’ of girls and women flowing into STEM, which sees them being effectively steered from that path and gradually “falling away” as they progress their education and careers.

For example, in the US around 74% of young girls express interest in computer science and STEM fields but hold only 18% of computer science degrees and 26% of computing jobs. Ayumi points out In the UAE, women comprise 47% of STEM graduates but fill only 15% of STEM roles.

Empowering women is good for STEM

She says: “To progress, we must work harder to educate young girls to actively consider qualifications and careers in STEM industries as something they can, and should be, pursuing. We need to raise the profile of women who are successful in STEM roles to act as role models, particularly at board and senior management level. We also need to think about educating men about the value women bring when working in these fields.”

Discover nine women leading the way in science and tech >

“For me, the process of empowerment has to start from the top down. I sit on the advisory board of Netherlands-based AutoFill Technologies to help ensure it achieves its goals of equal representation and opportunities in the workforce. In line with its proactive pursuit of greater diversity, the business is encouraging women in particular to apply for IT and engineering roles in its current recruitment drive.

“STEM companies gain from greater female participation because women bring with them different experiences and viewpoints – and arguably a greater degree of empathy – enabling the benefits of research, innovation and technology development to reach a much wider section of society,” says Ayumi.

With AI set to play a huge part in all our lives going forward, she asserts women must be involved in its development at a fundamental level to ensure an inherent gender bias isn’t inadvertently built into the data and algorithms shaping our future.

“It’s an opportunity to take positive action at ground level, bearing in mind the Institute for the Future predicts 85% of future STEM jobs won’t exist until 2030,” she says.

Gender bias

The findings of the report appear to indicate the ongoing drive to get more women to pursue education and careers in STEM to raise women’s earning power and erode sexist stereotypes may not be working, according to one of the researchers, Alysson Light, Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of the Sciences.

In an article covering the research she points out that when women make up more than 25% of graduate students in a discipline, men – and to a lesser extent women – become less interested in a discipline and salaries tend to go down.

She says: “For society to benefit fully from the broad spectrum of scientific disciplines, [science] advocates may need to address gender stereotypes more directly.”

Tackling the talent shortage

Increasing female representation in STEM will be essential if we are to fill the growing skills gap. According to tech giant Huawei within a global ICT talent shortage of 200 million people the top 10 hardest jobs to fill are STEM roles. The UK economy, for example, loses an estimated £1.5bn per year due to STEM skills shortages, and the US will have to find 3.5 million STEM jobs by 2025, with two million-plus vacancies predicted to go unfilled due to lack of appropriately skilled candidates.

So, one thing is certain, encouraging more women to get involved in STEM fields – and on parity with men – is going to be a necessity if we are to address the global shortage of talent, irrespective of concerns about whether a discipline is perceived as hard or soft.

1. Gender representation cues labels of hard and soft sciences: Alysson E.Light, Tessa M. Benson Greenwald and Amanda B. Diekman. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, January 2022

Find your next role

Discover life-changing jobs in engineering, life sciences and technology with game-changing companies around the world. Are you ready?

Elevate your expertise

Seek sought-after specialists

Draw on our global network to recruit the best professionals and find the skills you need tomorrow, today.

Energize your business

Read more insights

Two female scientist wearing masks and gloves examining a sample in a tube
11 February 2022

Nine women leading the way in science and technology

Celebrating International Day of Women and Girls in Science with pioneers making a difference.

Close up of hand typing on laptop with code overlay and pink/blue hues
29 November 2021

Unexpected error: .NET Consultant needed urgently

Whether it’s a 24-month contract, or a 2-day contract, every day we partner exceptional contractors with pioneering companies.

Young female engineer in high vis inputting data from paper to laptop
25 October 2021

Encouraging students to save the planet by choosing a career in the green sector

Inspiring young people to turn their passion for the environment into a career.

Silhouette of renewable engineers on solar farm at sunset
21 October 2021

Finding niche STEM talent teams to help renewable energy clients grow fast

Infinis required niche electrical and engineering skills to help them focus on their expansion into a new solar energy division.

Female scientist wearing full protective suit in a lab holding empty sample tubes and analysing data on touchscreen monitor
06 October 2021

Finding female leaders for a MedTech client

How people with different backgrounds, expertise and viewpoints can help teams make more effective decisions.

Male infrastructure engineer, in white shirt and jeans, in a server room working on laptop
29 September 2021

Supporting a sought after specialist through a mid-career switch

How a candidate returned to the banking sector after the pandemic led to hiring freezes and volatility in the market.

Factory working on a production line quality checking product as they move through the production line
02 August 2021

Finding local talent for a major US food and beverage manufacture

Solving a problem during the pandemic required a new approach when additional staff were needed during lockdown when demand soared.

Offshore wind turbine engineer abseiling over the sea looking at turbine
30 July 2021

Helping Arevon Energy reach its growth goals

How building a trusted relationship helped source a varied range of skilled professionals.

Developers looking at code on a screen while one holds a bank card testing a transaction on another device
24 June 2021

Building a new flagship store app on a tight timeline

Even when you’re a large global e-commerce retailer, finding experienced mobile developers at short notice presents a challenge.

Gettyimages 1301533363 RT1
30 March 2021

How can we achieve an equal future for leadership in STEM?

Learning from experience: hear from six female leaders across various industries about their leadership journey in our roundtable discussion

Shutterstock 1746589040 RT
05 March 2021

Choose to challenge this International Women's Day 2021

IWD belongs to all groups collectively everywhere. IWD is not country, group, or organisation specific.

Gettyimages 154511418 RT1
10 October 2020

It's okay to not be okay - why should you care about your mental health?

This article looks at why you should care about your mental health, especially during a pandemic this World Mental Health day.

Manager and team in a meeting room having a discussion
30 July 2020

Trust evolution: leaders need to re-think how they engage with their teams

Organisations need to pioneer a revolution in people management if they want to supercharge their future performance, says Tom Way.