Chinese virologist Shi Zhengli (L) is seen inside the P4 laboratory in Wuhan, capital of China’s Hubei province Photo by Johannes EISELE / AFP

How can we close the gender gap for women in STEM?

  • Women have long been and still are underrepresented in STEM occupations
  • The few women who begin careers in STEM face male-dominated workplaces with high rates of discrimination
  • Systems of bias that push women out of STEM careers can also influence the products and services created, such as artificial intelligence (AI)

The issue of gender disparities has been widely discussed and bitterly contested especially in recent years. In a number of fields in science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) especially, it is a well-known and widely lamented fact that men outnumber women. The widening of the gender gap is despite decades of progress towards workplace equality in the tech workforce.

Gender stereotypes about what are ‘women’s jobs’ often start at an early age, and are reinforced at school and in other areas of life. Normalizing the atmosphere around women in STEM careers might help young women see it as a career choice open to every woman, and not an occupation that requires specialized ‘male’ qualities or talent. Even for highly-qualified females, the issues don’t end with getting a job in the chosen specialization.

Once in the workforce, deeply-rooted institutional bias can lead to more women leaving STEM occupations. This, in turn, can reduce diversity and further reinforce biases in new technology like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML)AI reflects the embedded values of its society as determined by its coders, so structural gender and racial inequalities can unconsciously feed into the assumptions and algorithms employed – producing results that reflect these biases.

Eventually, if we do not have enough women entering STEM degrees and remaining in STEM occupations, it would be impossible to ensure there is sufficient female representation in specialized tech fields. Hence there is still much to figure out, for instance how STEM arenas can be repackaged to appeal to women, and then transparently encourage and foster their career and life choices.

Towards gender equality in STEM

A report quoting Signavio’s Solution Owner Henny Selig indicated that there are many negative examples that show that homogeneous tech teams do not represent the totality of people in their developed products.  “Even if we can get more women to work in tech, the challenge remains to keep them there,” she said.

In particular, businesses have to take a greater role in helping to reduce the ingrained differences in the skills that women gain and develop during their academic studies, and therefore in the jobs, they go on to take. Deloitte in a report highlighted a few highly recommended courses of action to achieve gender parity in the tech field which is; to provide educators and policymakers with practical careers and provide more support for women returning to work.

“We recommend that businesses educate the educators about the shift that is needed from acquiring knowledge to developing the technical, creative, management, and practical problem-solving skills that human workers will need to complement technologies like AI. Besides that, a large majority of women with expertise in STEM subjects are not working in industries that require these skills. The consequences of this ‘missing talent’ are two-fold: a disproportionate number of women are working in roles that are not well paid, and the economy as a whole is missing out on a hugely valuable pool of ideas and skills,” the report reads.

Part of the challenge is that many women cannot participate in STEM-based occupations in a flexible way, balancing the often-competing pressures of work and home life. Deloitte recommends, therefore, that businesses develop or strengthen programs for helping mothers transition back into work and examine the further potential for using technology to help more people work flexibly.