The talent (gender) gap in STEM

The STEM fields are living in an ongoing talent crisis. Worldwide there is an evident gap between open positions and profiles able to fill them. And no matter the need and the benefits of enlarging the pool from where to draw, half of the potential talents remain unexplored. It isn’t wholly fostered and, overall, often overlooked. Girls and women continue to be told science and technology are not subject matters for them.

Significant steps forward have been made and more students have accessed higher education programs, entered the labour market with higher qualifications, have been promoted and granted better-paid jobs. Yet, the gender gap affecting these disciplines is still considerable at all levels.

The topic has been in the spotlight for years by organizations and policymakers alike. In December 2013, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on science and technology for development recognizing “that full and equal access to and participation in science, technology, and innovation for women and girls of all ages is imperative for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.” For this year’s UN International Day of Women and Girls in Sciences (February 11), the concept has been further expanded, expressing the need to “connect the International Community to Women and Girls in Science, strengthening the ties between science, policy, and society for strategies towards the future.”

Regardless of a better understanding of the issue and the efforts to grant a more welcoming environments, many (of the not-enough) female students pursuing science degrees drop off after graduating and, again, when starting to work. Their decisions have a lot to do with persisting stereotypes, challenging (if not hostile) working environments, and gender biases they endure from a young age.

There is room for improvement

With some discrepancies, STEM sectors still have steps to take to reach better D&I goals. In January in the US, the National Center for Sciences and Engineering Statistics (NCSE) released the federal government’s most complete analysis of diversity trends in these fields. While acknowledging the growing diversity in these sectors’ workforce, this year’s report also underlines how underrepresented women and minorities remain. In the States, women earned 50% of science and engineering bachelor’s degrees, still they represent 35% (or 12.3 million workers) of the working population in STEM. Their wages are consistently lower than those of (white) men.

In the European Union, the situation is not too different. And the talent gap in the tech and scientific sectors, according to a recent analysis by McKinsey, will account for between 1.4 and 3.9 million people by 2027. If filled, it could benefit the Union with an increase in GDP of as much as 260 to 600 billion €. Authors at McKinsey maintain that one way to close the gap could be to double the share of women employed in innovative and technological fields, bringing it to 45%, or add around 3.9 million female professionals within five years. “Something we believe is possible”, they specify.

Knowing the numbers is crucial. To better tackle foreseeable shortcomings, it also becomes imperative to understand the difficulties in finding and retaining female talents. As there are challenges all along the way, there is also room for improvement. António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, comments: “We can all do our part to unleash our world’s enormous untapped talent – starting with filling the classrooms, laboratories, and boardrooms with women scientists.”

Regarding the percentage of girls and women in sciences and tech in Europe, there are two major drops, claim “Women in Tech: The best bet to solve Europe’s talent shortage.” The first reaches 18% and happens in the transition from primary and secondary schools to university. The second, by another 15%, occurs when moving away from university classrooms to enter the workforce.

Teach better. Build equity

We are at a point where the share of female graduates in higher education in STEM subjects is declining. Moreover, regardless of the level of study, there are few women in the higher paying, faster-growing jobs in these sectors – such as developers and cloud computing. “At current rates – the study warns – the share of women in tech roles in Europe is heading toward a decline to 21% by 2027.”

In the quest for finding and retaining talents, it is the moment to look for women. To foster the younger generation, to better accompany students in their choices, and mentor and support their careers.

Alongside plans and positive actions for diversity and inclusion, there is also a strong need for a cultural shift. Women do not choose STEM studies since they often receive low(er) support from families and teachers. Girls are often told – subtly and openly – that those are not fields for them. They are less and later exposed to technology and equipment. Entering ICT studies, for example – a sector where female students represent 19%  – they frequently suffer isolation, thus, are more prone to drop out. Over half of the women professionals that work in STEM leave their industry by the midpoint of their careers (over double the rate registered for men) and are prevented from reaching leadership positions.

As motivated as they can be, the emotional burden, more than the intellectual steps to make, seems steeper for women. And thus, the talent gap persists.

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