By Laurie Gayle, YWCA of Great Britain.
I want to spend a little time extracting some data for us to digest before going on to talk about how YWCA programmes address the gender gap relating to STEM.
All the experts agree that the greatest job growth in the world is predicted to be in the industry of engineering. There is an enormous shortage of engineers and big data talent to meet industry needs now and in the future and so, attracting more women to these fields is critical to solving this problem.
So, why is there a problem? Overall it comes down to the world not producing enough students with the right skills. In the last 20 years, engineering enrolment has remained stagnant in the US despite enormous industry changes. Whilst technology has radically evolved, interest levels have not and this is particularly true for women and girls.
Just 18% of engineering degrees are awarded to women, 10% of practicing engineers are female and 3% of technology CEOs are women. Why? Because of the slander that says these fields are men’s work only. We, as women, committed to equality, must get better at challenging this. It is NOT a fact that some jobs professions are just better suited to men. Let’s all remember what I’m about to say and repeat this when appropriate: Whilst you are entitled to your own opinion, no matter how wrong, you are not entitled to your own facts.
So now, I want to establish a little bit of a baseline. Who has heard of Stephen Hawking? How about Neil de Grasse Tyson, director of the Harlem Plantearium in New York? Who can name a woman, let alone a woman of colour or who has a disability, with the same level of recognition in those fields?
This is a large part of why this issue is so multi-layered and the crux of it for me is a simple doctrine: We are what we see. Women and girls don’t see themselves doing certain careers, certain things, because they literally don’t see themselves doing these things. If you don’t see a woman playing sport, if you don’t see a woman engaging in politics, if you don’t see women taking on leadership roles in their community or working in academic disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, you’re less likely to conceive that one day you could or should be doing these things.
There’s some really interesting research that has come out from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media about this. What they found is the media (that’s film, television, news outlets etc.), do not portray or highlight women engineers or computer scientists at all. An interesting exception however, is in the United States, particularly on television, where women forensic scientists are extremely well-represented because of shows like CSI. What the data tells us is because there is significant saturation in media representation for this field, and women in this field, there is less work to be done in achieving equality in forensic science because of this: women gaining forensic science degrees has risen 75% over the last decade. So, the proof is there that several layers of society need to bump up showcasing women in STEM roles because clearly, when you see it, you be it!
The YWCA movement of over 25 million girls and women the world over is great at recognising this. I want to highlight what one of the YWCAs here in the States has been doing around bolstering interest in girls around STEM.
The YWCA of Pittsburgh runs three distinct programmes designed to supplement regular academic settings and bring girls to STEM and STEM to girls. ‘Tech Girls’, ‘STEM Impact’ and ‘STEM Art’ are all about nurturing girls’ confidence to use STEM tools, improve basic literacy and coach girls to utilise and interact with STEM to encourage creativity and expand their horizons.
This is just one piece of the puzzle. Think about strategies you think would work to integrate girls into STEM. What can you do as an individual? What can you do as a community? What do you expect civil society and NGOs to do in terms of programming? What should our Governments be doing? What sort of societal changes can start the domino effect?
To sum it all up, I want conclude with something Martin Luther King Jr. used to say. We cannot take the tranquilising drug of gradualism. This incremental approach towards equality isn’t good enough anymore. We’ve got to get better at insisting for ‘now’ and not settling for only a footstep forward. The reason this is important is because of this statistic which, when I read it, rocked my world. If we keep adding women to STEM fields, and politics, and other arenas at the rate we have been, we will not reach gender parity for another 800 YEARS. Whilst we all know that statistic is simply unacceptable, it’s not unchangeable. So let’s do something about it.