Women in STEM: Are we really under-represented?

I was speaking to my husband yesterday about the lack of female representation of my sport in a GIF. Silly, but still important in our quest for equal representation.

I practice powerlifting in my spare time and was unimpressed to find that most of the GIF’s for fitness were women in tight leggings lifting small weights. Women can be strong too!

This got me thinking about positive role models in other areas beyond sport where the representation of women is commonly under-represented such as science, technology, engineering and maths, or STEM as it’s often referred to.

Positive female role models have the capacity to entice young women into careers like those in STEM and is a much-discussed topic these days.

Are women really underrepresented or just under emphasised?

International statistics show that women are under-represented at senior management level and that female participation rates in STEM-related disciplines are surprisingly low.

With only a quarter of people working in STEM roles being women, it can be challenging for young aspiring girls to find role models. But that doesn’t mean that they are not out there.

Perhaps they are simply not highlighted or prefer working in the background doing the work, rather than highlighting their success. Role models and influencers exist and many have had wonderfully successful careers.

Jane Goodall (anthropologist), Marie Curie (Physicist), Jess Wade (physicist ), Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson (mathematicians at NASA), Emily Warren (an engineer who contributed to Brooklyn Bridge), Cynthia Breazeal (known as a modern-day computer science pioneer), Edith Clark (engineer), Rosalind Franklin (Scientist who developed Concept 19), Admiral Grace Hopper (Computer Scientist) and Sally Ride (Astronaut and Physicist) to name but a few.

Whilst this is not an extensive list it does emphasise the need for us; people, teachers, parents, organisations and government bodies, to highlight and promote women in STEM both past and current.

Encouraging parents to take the lead

I’m the eldest of 4. So before my brother came along my Dad did what I called at the time “boy things” with me. He took me fishing, horse riding and brought me on nixers with him.

Before I was 15 I knew how to lay a brick, mix cement, fish, ride a horse and build a model airplane. In school, I was always better at the more physical hands-on subjects like music, art, biology and home economics.

Making a pillowcase, building bowels out of clay, baking cakes and dissecting frogs came easy to me. When I left school I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I hadn’t even considered a STEM style subject until much later in my career when I went on to study health science subjects.

Could it have been poor representation, little awareness or confidence in my abilities? Or all of the above?

Parents understanding and vision of STEM can be broadened by demonstrating that science, technology, engineering and maths are everywhere and are impacting our daily lives in so many ways. Educating parents is a good first step but parents need help and guidance from schools, universities, organisations and government bodies.

Campaigns that highlight books for children, programmes and taking fun day trips that are more related to STEM can encourage this. When you can see what’s possible you can believe its possible for you and that’s what young girls need to see.

Parents are in a strong position to showcase what’s possible for children but they need to be educated also.

Organisations can help too

Organisations have a role to play also and this goes beyond having female representation on your website. Diageo has a great advert campaign showing a Japanese ladies rugby team in a muddy scrum. A great example of how organisations can showcase women’s abilities in predominantly male roles.

Sending STEM ambassadors to schools to talk to both parents and children can help. STEM businesses are quite good at this but there is work to be done in non-STEM companies.

The parents working for these companies need extra help, as they will not have the resources that a STEM business will have and will likely have some fear of lack of knowledge or that they may pass on some personal beliefs or misconceptions to their children.

Organisations can support campaigns within the STEM industry by supporting schools and marketing to broaden perspective. The What’s She Doing Here? exhibition at the Little Museum of Dublin is another good example of this.

We all need to drive the agenda

As a nation, we need to drive the agenda to the same extent that we drive other elements of diversity and inclusion topics. India has seen a substantial increase in women studying and working in engineering, once seen as a “masculine” discipline.

Parents in India often encourage daughters into engineering because of good employment prospects. India’s female engineers the “rocket women of ISRO” have played a pivotal role in the country’s space programme and have been widely celebrated.

Other factors include the ‘friendly’ image or brand associates with engineering in India and the easy access to engineering education resulting from the increase in the number of women’s engineering colleges over the last two decades.

Organisations, government bodies, parents and schools can all play a role to educate and encourage young women about the great opportunities that are available to them now and into the future. Let the stigma be broken.

Encourage girls to follow their interest; construct model aeroplanes, learn to code, make perfumes and dissect frogs. All the while continuing to emphasise women past and current who are leading in STEM.

Join us for our UK Webinar Series “Perspectives on the Future in STEM” where we interview experts to gain insights and perspectives across a range of STEM topics and STEM careers. Register and find more details here.