Teenage girls are showing an increased interest in STEAM fields and are considering those fields for a career. Since technology permeates all aspects of living, there are more STEAM open positions than male professionals can fill. Thus, there is great potential for women, who continue to be well underrepresented in those areas.
But when it comes to representation, presence and participation of women in STEAM jobs, the good news almost end here.
The challenges begin early in women’s lives and continue throughout their careers. They tend to consider those areas too difficult or not something for them and are less inclined to pursue those studies. Moreover, on one side, society assigns different (stereotypical) roles to what is suitable or not for them. And on the other, parents tend to believe their sons, rather than their daughters, will enter a scientific, technological or mathematical field.
From age 5, girls start to develop limiting self-believes about their possibility to “be everything they want”, then enter – as if we needed yet another – what is called the Dream Gap. This phenomenon, featured in Mattel’s campaign that started in 2018 to empower young girls, holds back girls and women from living up to their full potential. It is notably ignited by social constrictions and stereotypes affirming that women are less capable and valuable than men.
From then on, for most, it is a downhill path. Statistics show that interest and comfort in science and technology decrease with age. Since women stand steps back form early on, particularly in the STEAMs, it becomes complicated to bring them back into those fields or reboot their willingness to work in those areas later on.
How can we close the STEM gap? What can we do to inspire girls to get into STEAM and choose these careers? And once they’re there, how can we retain them? The key questions are known. They have been recently asked once again during the panel discussion organized by Marie Claire UK in collaboration with Barbie to celebrate this year’s Day of the Girls on the 11 of October.
Listen to the girls. Ask the right questions.
“Girls are telling us that there are very rational reasons why they can’t progress, and we need to listen” maintained Claire Barnett, UN Women UK executive director during the panel. “We often forget that children are born believing strongly in equality. The way in which girls dream inspires us all, but as they move through the world, they are faced with so many barriers to those dreams becoming a reality. They do not need coaching. What we need to be doing is lifting up their voices and giving them access to the biggest tools of power. Because when girls get into those spaces, what they can do is incredible“.
Once we acknowledge the right questions, we can follow the adequate and effective steps to bring and retain girls who want to enter STEAMS professions. As discussed during Marie Claire and Barbie’s webinar, some factors are vital in determining success and depicting a different picture for the future.
1) Early encouragement from schools, teachers, and families, to tackle the fear of failure. As Miriam Gonzales, CEO of Inspiring Girls Charity, confirms: “We work in 30 different countries, in lots of different areas, from rural to urban. The diversity of the girls and the schools is enormous. And yet, we find some common elements no matter where we are. Fear of failure is much higher in girls than in boys. When boys fail, they simply say, I am failing this. But when girls fail, they feel they are a failure.” And so “they limit their dreams. It affects STEM because those subjects require a lot of trial and error.”
2) Role models. As Cecilia Harvey, founder of Tech Women Today and co-founder of Hyve Dynamics, points out, “We need to demonstrate the variety of careers that women can pursue in STEM”. You don’t necessarily have to be an engineer or programmer. We need to present STEM careers in a way that shows those exciting opportunities.”
“It’s not a self-confidence issue” adds Claire Barnett. “Girls are taught that strong women are unlikable and soft women aren’t promotable. Then, it is quite reasonable (especially in these male-dominated fields) for girls to drop out.”
3) Give visibility and support. Changes have to come also from within. “While we need quotas and D&I structures in companies”, proposes Tijen Onaran, 2022 Barbie role model and founder of Global Digital Women, “empowerment starts with self-empowerment. As a woman, you need to make this commitment that you want to start a career or become a leader. And we need to push other women, whether it’s a like or comment on social media, or recommending someone for a job”. And all the way to investing in women-lead/founded companies. “Men – continues Onaran, – have been doing this for each other for years.”
4) Educate men: they also need to do their part. It is not just women who must push themselves up and become more visible. It’s also about educating men and showing them that diversity is an excellent economic performance driver. “It is not – adds Onaran – a charity project for companies.” it has quantifiable value.
Gender norms are still a barrier. Visibility matters. Self-empowerment matters. Early and equal exposure matters. All factors are to consider on the path toward eradicating biases. Women still represent less than a third of the workforce in STEAM, although those industries are growing fast and offering the majority of best-paid and most secure jobs.
There is no denying it; if the trend does not change quickly, it can cement quite a worrying picture for gender equality as a whole. Now that the attention is great and the tools are as sophisticated as can be, it is time to make it all work together. By giving resources and confidence that will help fill the dream gap.
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