Sector News

Mind the gap: women in STEMM 

December 13, 2020
Diversity & Inclusion

The STEMM gap is the employment disparity in the science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine fields between men and women. There is also a racial imbalance in STEMM that aligns with the majority-minority challenges in many cultures. So why focus on the STEMM gap for women? Savannah Maziya is the Executive Chairperson of The Bunengi Group, an international mining, infrastructure, agriculture and investment corporation headquartered in South Africa. “So, I always talk about the one culture that the world shares. There’s American culture and English, Jamaican and Indian, whatever. But the one culture we all share is discrimination against women and always thinking that women are a lesser-than.”

Maziya points out the irony. “Women can be pregnant and give birth to people, bring them into the world, raise a full human being. But if you just say, ‘operate this heavy machinery,’ it’s ‘oh no, they can’t do that!’ For some reason, it seems difficult to see women operating in various commercial operations, especially STEMM-related ones.”

Quoting global figures from 2016, Paola Scarpa, Director of Client Solutions, Data & Insights at Google Italy says, “We start off having just 35% women in STEMM at university. We move to 25% women in the STEMM workforce. Then 14% women in STEMM management roles and finally just 9% as a STEMM executive and CEO.”

The rates of female participation in STEMM vary country to country. For example, according to Michelle Gallaher, CEO of the ASX-listed AI company Opyl and co-founder and co-chair of Women in STEMM Australia, “The representation of women is the lowest around IT and physics, where we’re seeing less than a 15% representation, through to biological sciences and healthcare in which we’re seeing equity, we’re seeing 50/50. In Australia, we’ve only got 17% of professors in our academic institutions that are women. So there’s a real significant disadvantage. And the greatest gap is seen at the most senior levels of the STEMM sector in Australia.”

Another example is India, with its own striking figures regarding women in STEMM. Geetha Kannan is the founder and CEO of Wequity and a pioneer for the Women in IT movement in India. She explains, “India is number one in terms of female STEMM graduates, at a high level of 43%. However we are 19th in terms of employing them, this is where the issue of gender equity starts. And if you take medicine alone, 60% of students in medical colleges are women currently in India, but only 20% of them take up professional posts.”

The women who do enter STEMM professions are less likely to remain, or to advance. “We see a significant divergence and we call it the scissors graph, when we see women’s careers diverge from men’s, Gallaher says. “It’s about mid-career and it usually coincides around the building of families. And in STEMM, those women who continue to accelerate their careers still don’t accelerate to the same level as men. We’re seeing quite a significant gap in terms of salary as well. In STEMM in Australia at the moment, it’s about a 22.5% gap. And the higher up you go, the bigger the gap.”

Diversity is a business imperative and therefore the STEMM gap comes at a steep cost for economies and organizations, as well as the women left behind.

As digital transformation and the adoption of tech increasingly influence which companies thrive, even survive, what’s the impact of the STEMM gap? According to Gallaher, Kannan, Maziya and Scarpa, the loss can be measured in innovation, market share and the pool of top talent.

From Kannan’s perspective, “We are losing a lot of vital talent because these women have studied, but they’re not contributing in any way with what they’ve studied. This is one aspect, the talent pool is lost. The second aspect is that the financial performance of companies significantly improves when there’s diversity in the company, enough research is out there from McKinsey and credible research entities on this. The third key point is that you are developing for a market that is 50% men and 50% women. So if your market is not reflected in your workforce, how good can your products be?”

For example, Maziya says, “Consider how cars are built. Cars are really built one-size-fits-all. Have you ever seen a place for a handbag in a car? No, it’s called the passenger seat.” She adds, “It may be a lot of things that seem unimportant, but actually are quite important. And some are life-threatening. This shows that a lot of things are not built with women in mind and yet they form a large component of the user group. If more women were involved in the design process such things would be considered in all products.”

Maziya describes the experience of a researcher who wanted to study bowel cancer in African American women. “They were just told, ‘that market is just not big enough.’ Well that may be so in the United States, but there’s a whole host of other people of color outside the United States. Hello, 500 Million women in Africa, for example. There’s the UK, there’s the Caribbean. But it becomes very difficult to make a career stand, unless you’re really senior enough and say, look, I really want to do this. And then women leave the commercial environment because they just don’t want to fight those battles anymore. We need to have environments that are accepting of diversity. We are seeing a lot of focus on diversity now. This is very encouraging and needs to be supported so that it is sustainable.”

Kannan describes “listening to stories of people at work, talking about what they’re going through and how the prejudices at work are really pulling them back rather than advancing them, even resulting in some of them saying enough is enough, we are going to quit.” She says, “So I decided from that time onwards that I’d continue to be associated in the space of advancing women in technology.”

According to the 2019 McKinsey Global Institute report “The Future of Women at Work: Transitions in the Age of Automation” women are more likely to study natural sciences than applied sciences and have a low participation rate in tech jobs. “Fewer than 20 percent of tech workers are female in many mature economies. Only 1.4 percent of female workers have jobs developing, maintaining, or operating ICT systems, compared with 5.5 percent of male workers, according to the OECD.”

Why is this gap relevant? Scarpa explains, “We are going in a direction where everything will be digital. So even if you are a historian, a painter, or whatever, there will be digital in the background. You need some technical skills to be able to survive in this environment. The reason we need to provide women the same opportunity that we provide to men is because otherwise, we will only have products and messages written by men.”

Kannan’s assessment is definitive. “The result of the STEMM gap is, we are losing.” READ MORE



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