Okay, so we all know that STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths – is a big deal. We also know it’s kind of a big deal for women, namely because women should be doing it, and they’re not. Why does that matter? Well, for starters, these industries are the companies, banks, hospitals and innovations that shape our society. It’s also where the money lies. STEM companies bring £127,580,000,000 to the UK economy. Which is why it’s a sad fact to report that women account for only 14.4% of the UK STEM industry, and why, with that depressing statistic, it is unsurprising that the gender pay gap is alive and well.
The lack of diversity in the industry, of course, starts young. I spoke to Emma Bunce, Professor of Planetary Plasma Physics at the University of Leicester, who thinks that gender stereotyping children is at the root of the issue. "It’s dangerous to assume anything about what a young child wants to play with," she says. "Don’t just assume that boys will do one thing and girls another. It sets us on that path of being put into our boxes and once it’s there, it just gets reinforced."
Her own upbringing was, thankfully, devoid of that mentality. In fact, she even wrote to NASA at 14 asking how she could get a job – and they wrote back. Dr Megan Rossi, a leading gut health specialist and research associate at King's College London, tells me she had a similar childhood, making science experiments in her back garden with her science teacher mother.
Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE is not only a childhood computing and maths prodigy and the youngest girl, aged 11, to pass a computing A-level, but is the founder of leading initiative Stemettes, created to encourage girls to get involved in STEM. She too had a childhood marked by encouragement: "I never had the feeling that STEM was not for girls. It was always my thing, not even my thing as a girl, it was my thing as Anne-Marie," she says. "It was genderless."
If you tell me I can’t do something, I want to do it more.
Dr Patricia Vargas
Their experiences differ from many other young girls, including Dr Patricia Vargas, a robotics specialist and associate professor who was told her passion was a man’s career, and not for her. "But if you tell me I can’t do something," she says, "I want to do it more."
Not everyone has Vargas' strong will, and Imafidon agrees: "Being in STEM means solving problems, you shouldn’t have to be someone who is either thick-skinned or someone who was lucky enough to not have gender stereotypes pushed on to them."
So how to solve the problem? Stemettes is doing serious work to encourage girls. Formed in 2012, after Imafidon realised the stark reality of women in her industry, their mentorship programme has seen huge successes and over 13,000 girls from the UK, Ireland and Europe have attended their events, which aim to get girls stuck in with hackathons, maths challenges and science tasks, to realise that STEM is for them too.
Yet girls need to see women in the industry to believe it’s a viable reality for them. Imafidon thinks this is especially true when it comes to representation in the media. Stemettes is hoping to branch out as either a documentary or a sitcom about girls in tech. "You don’t see technical women at all," she points out, "even in fiction. It feeds into what people think is reality and that forms a conditioning of girls."
Visibility is a crucial concern of accelerateHER, an initiative formed through the tech network Founders Forum, by Laura Stebbing and Poppy Gaye. AccelerateHER, which harnesses the 5,000-strong company network of Founders Forum and connects them to women in the industry, has partnered with InspiringFifty – a project which strives to spotlight women in tech.
"Only 25% of tech employees and only 5% of tech leaders are female," says Stebbing, "but within those percentages are extraordinary women we don’t know enough about." InspiringFifty will select a list of 50 women in tech in the UK, announced in November, including those hidden, hardworking names not in the limelight. The result should help not only aspiring tech girls but women already in the industry.
"The quit rate for women in tech is something like 41% which is over twice as high as men at 17%," says Stebbing. "We need to support these women and show more variety of roles in tech to inspire them."
AccelerateHER not only aims to motivate women with InspiringFifty, but their own work with the company Male Champions of Change, aims to encourage best practice within companies. They believe that men have to play a crucial part in reshaping the industry and their impressive roster of connections means they are uniquely placed to do that. They are, in their own words "bullish" about male attendance and participation at their events and have seen tangible change happen because of this – with CEOs changing flexible working policies and investing in female tech companies.
There is a real perception that you have to have a geeky computer science brain to get into tech. But there are so many women succeeding in this industry who did humanities degrees.
Bunce had a vital male mentor in her own career yet still sees an alarming lack of gender parity: "There are nearly 50 academic staff in my department and I am one of three females. I am also the only female professor there has ever been in this department." Vargas and Rossi both cite feeling as if they have to work twice as hard as men just to "be visible" and Vargas points to the gender pay gap that still persists in her industry: "I think there is still this perception that men can do the job better."
Vargas talks of wanting to reach out to girls in poverty in her native Brazil, who have no access to a computer, let alone a female role model, and points to the success of a group in her own robotics centre, formed by her female students, called WIRE (Women In Robotics in Edinburgh). When she brings young students to the centre through her own outreach work, this group stays in contact with them. "We need to show girls there is a place for them," she stresses.
This is the driving force behind InspiringFifty, accelerateHER and Stemettes, all of which want to not only highlight women in STEM but debunk misconceptions about the STEM industries. Imafidon would like to disabuse everyone of "the genius trope" as a necessity for getting into science or tech and Rossi would like to sex up science, believing it has for too long been marketed as "dull, boring and unappealing for women".
For Stebbing and Gaye, they want more transparency about the industry. "There is a real perception that you have to have a geeky computer science brain to get into tech," says Stebbing, "but there are so many women succeeding in this industry who did humanities degrees. There a million different paths into tech."
Getting girls into STEM and supporting women within the industry is not just a strident feminist move but actually a prudent economic decision. It is estimated that women getting into STEM could increase our GDP by $28 trillion by 2025. Findings from the Stemettes Incubator, where 36 girls from all over the world took part in a six-week STEM summer programme, prove that it could also have a hugely beneficial societal impact.
"They were tasked with creating their own start-ups but we didn’t tell them what to do," says Imafidon. "All 29 start-ups came up with a solution that benefitted society or solved an educational or medical problem – from aiding Parkinson’s sufferers to finding lost pets. This is why we need more women in STEM!"
Perhaps, then, the future is bright. Bunce agrees, seeing hope in her own young children. "They are much less tolerant of being pigeonholed," she tells me. "Science is for boys? I think that will be a thing of the past."
Anne-Marie Imafidon, Megan Rossi, Patricia Vargas and Emma Bunce will be speaking at New Scientist Live, a four-day festival of ideas and discovery, with over 100 other influential speakers from 20th–23rd September at ExCel London. Tickets are available with 29% off at live.newscientist.com/refinery29 using discount code REFINERY29.
You can nominate an inspiring woman in tech as one of the InspiringFifty at www.inspiringfifty.com by 30th Sept 2018.