The slow awakening of female talent in technical subjects

With Women’s Day on March 9 due to celebrate the progress made in gender equality, the percentage of women choosing to study science and technology subjects is still not rising fast enough to close the gap with men

“With no women in the automotive sector, there won’t be anyone to think about how women drive”
“It has become normal for girls to play football. the same logic should be followed in science and technology”
of university students
in STEM degree subjects are women

As International Women’s Day approaches on March 8 to celebrate the advances that society has made in recent times to achieve greater parity between the sexes, some areas still lag behind. A key example is that the rise in the number of women choosing technological and scientific careers continues to rise at a very slow pace. Despite all the efforts and initiatives made in the private and public spheres to get more women into these subjects, there is still a lot of work to be done. In Catalonia, only 32% of students doing STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) at university are women.

Nevertheless, after years of stagnation, and even at times regression, since the 2016/17 academic year the number of women in STEM subjects has grown overall, albeit only slightly. In absolute terms, the number of female students went from 16,000 in STEM degrees in the 2016/17 academic year to 18,000 in the 2022/23 academic year (for men, the numbers were 53,000 and 57,000, respectively).

However, if we look at the percentage of female students in certain STEM subjects, such as computer science (16%), mathematics (25%), automotive (5%) and telecommunications (13%), the room for improvement in making up ground is huge.

The arguments for why it is urgent to close the gap between the sexes in studying STEM subjects are several. First, because the lack of vocation for technical subjects among young women endangers their work prospects in an increasingly technological world; secondly, because diversity within business organisations makes them more profitable, and, furthermore, because without women in the professions in which the products and services of the future are designed and branded, gender biases will persist that can exclude half of the population.

“The fact that the degree subjects with the best job prospects and the best remuneration in the labour market are the ones with the most female underrepresentation is unfair and must be reversed,” believes Josefina Antonijuan, vice-rector of social responsibility and equality at Catalonia’s Polytechnic University (UPC), the country’s leading public university in the fields of architecture, engineering, science and technology.

Meanwhile, the president of the Association of Industrial Engineers of Catalonia, Maria Salamero, points out that the diversity of views in teams allows companies, administrations and any type of organisation to make better decisions, “and not only diversity of gender but also of age, abilities, and so on,” she says. In fact, the lack of diverse viewpoints has for years contributed to the shortcomings of products, such as the design of car seat belts that do not take into account pregnant women or electronic devices to monitor the user’s state of health that do not include female-specific variables.

It was not until last year that the Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute developed the first female crash test dummy ever in history. Until now, no one had taken into account that women are generally shorter than men and that their muscles, hips and torso are different. “If there are no women in the automotive sector, there won’t be anyone to think about how women drive,” adds Salamero.

The development of artificial intelligence also poses a challenge: if the data used comes from very masculinised environments, it will be reflected in the databases which “will be male-oriented and will perpetuate gender bias,” argues Antonijuan.

The low presence of women in science and tech careers from which new technology flows reached a turning point in 2018, when different initiatives began to emerge to counter this deficit. The STEM Women Congress is a good example, under journalist Eva Díaz and executive in the technological business world Mar Porras, who decided in 2019 to launch an event to encourage more women to join the STEM sector. The aspiration is to give visibility and promote female talent in the STEM sphere.

Mireia Usart, Serra Húnter lecturer in educational research and a researcher in educational technology, recently ran a study on the lack of female talent to be found in STEM subjects. The conclusion of the analysis was that achieving parity in these disciplines is a slow process that is also due to multiple factors. One is the fact that the initiatives that have been carried out so far have targeted young women who are already persuaded and have not been wide enough to bring in new students. “It is very difficult to convince those who are not at all attracted to this world, because from the outside it looks to them to be very masculinised,” says Usart, who gives the example of video games and robotics, which continue to be mostly linked to combat scenarios, “a theme that arouses little interest among girls,” adds Usart.

The fact is that the stereotypes linked to these professions begin to be absorbed at a very early age. There are studies that show that by the age of six girls have already internalised that scientist, computer scientist or engineer are male professions, and cultural pressure continues to consolidate these attitudes until it’s time for them to choose what they want to be when they grow up.

Cultural pressure

From the types of toys offered to them, to how and who teaches them technical subjects, to how the purpose of degree courses are presented to them, all help create a world view in girls that more often pushes them towards training options linked to the arts, the humanities, the caring profession, and so on. Some 81% of people enrolled in the field of education are women; 83%, in nursing; 72%, in medicine, and 77%, in languages. “There are some socio-cultural factors, some individual factors of each person, as well as institutional and educational policy factors that are beginning to be detected in schools, even in nursery schools, and which condition us from an early age,” explains Porras, president of the STEM Women Congress.

However, until only recently, most of the actions and initiatives that had been launched to attract female students to STEM subjects have focused on high school students, when it is already too late.

There is another limiting aspect linked to cultural pressure: self-perception. From the age of six, a girl already begins to believe that she is less capable than a boy in terms of her skills. This is what a study published by Science magazine finds, warning that from their first years of life, girls already tend to discount those activities that are considered to be for “very intelligent” children. This ends up having a direct impact on their choice of academic and professional future.

There is overwhelming unanimity among all the experts consulted on the fact that the lack of role models is a key cause of the low participation of girls in STEM subjects. Mireia Usart participates in the digital transformation of schools. She says that while 90% of teachers are women, 99% of those responsible for ICT (information and communications technology) in primary schools are men. And if we look at the job market, only 25% of all technical professionals in ICT sector companies in Catalonia are women, according to data from the DonaTIC Barometer study, which also found that female talent accounted for just 37% of new tech hires and 35% of internal promotions in the tech industry in 2021.

Porras sees re-skilling as a possible solution: “The disciplines that are growing have the advantage that they are multidisciplinary. I’d tell women that they have the opportunity to grow in economically better settled careers, to be more independent and to be models for the new generations.”

“With football it has become normal for girls to play the sport and there are many more female teams. Well, in science and technology, the same logic should be followed”, explains Zoila Babot, head of communication at the Barcelona Institute of Science and Technology (BIST), which is made up of seven research centres and heads the 100tifiques programme, a project that aims to highlight the relevance and strategic role of women in science and technology. The initiative takes women working in these fields into schools so that girls see from a young age that these are professions in which women can also thrive.

feature WOMEN in STEM


“Using role models from the 19th century does not help”

Liliana Arroyo Moliner, the head of Digital Society, holds a degree in sociology from the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB), a PhD in sociology from the University of Barcelona (UB) and is a specialist in digital social innovation. She has been responsible for innovation in the Digital Technology Societies area of the i2Cat Foundation and researcher at the Institute for Social Innovation (Esade).

What do you think makes girls shy away from STEM vocations?
There are multiple reasons. The first is the number of gender biases around these professional profiles. Girls grow up with the burden of “impostor syndrome”, a problem of lack of confidence in occupying traditionally male positions. And then there’s a lack of role models, both male and female. That’s key. We find that when a girl has a role model at home, she’s much more likely to study a career related to the technical field. Even if he’s the father; he doesn’t have to be a female role model. Then there’s the snowball effect.
Is there a clear consensus that role models are needed?
Yes, but we must be careful with them, because lately some roles have reappeared that may not help, such as 19th-century figures or women who have had to leave their lives to one side or have a series of burdens associated with working in the world of technology. This does no good to the cause. And how we explain these careers is especially critical. What interests girls is very different from what interests boys, and we must know how to adapt so that what we’re proposing is understood.
In what way?
Boys and girls have a very different approach when choosing a career. In general terms, the girls’ vocation is to improve the lives of those close to them, and for boys it’s generally enough to think it’s a successful job opportunity. They’re much more instrumental.
So the key here is how we sell these careers?
That’s very important. Here at Digital Society we’ve contributed to a campaign to create women scientist role models, who explain their careers from a different point of view. For example, a woman who studied computer science because she wanted to cure cancer, and explained that being a computer engineer gave her a knowledge of data to help create a tool to fight this disease.
So the challenge is how to talk about technology?
Yes, exactly. We should talk about technology not as a solution, not as an end in itself, because that’s a very short path, but as a means to achieve other things, because this also implies a much more inclusive and fair vision.
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