Conquering the STEM gender divide – why Ada Lovelace Day matters

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Many IT professionals will be familiar with Ada Lovelace – widely known as the first person to recognise the full potential of the computer.  She wrote the first algorithm for Charles Babbage’s general-purpose ‘Analytical Engine’, which is considered to be the first published algorithm developed specifically to be used on a computer.  

Ada Lovelace Day is celebrated every year on the second Tuesday in October, as a way to celebrate female role models in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).  Founded by leading technologist, Suw Charman-Anderson, in 2009, Ada Lovelace Day – or ALD – aims to create new role models to support girls in their study choices and women in their careers.

The STEM imbalance

At present, just 24 per cent of the STEM workforce is female.  Those women who do enter STEM careers are more likely to leave for other industries than their male colleagues, with more than half leaving by the 10-year mark.  For those working in STEM fields it’s clear that women are grossly underrepresented, but why is this?  Low levels of participation can be traced back all the way to the school years, where a number of influences from society and culture, education and the labour market are all at play. 

The challenge is two-fold: first, get more women into STEM.  Then, make sure they want to stay.  We need to encourage more women to pursue careers in these areas – and this applies to those individuals already in the workforce, as well as students.  It will require both training, and re-skilling, but it will be key to closing the gender divide in STEM.

Conscious and unconscious bias

There have always been challenges with women entering jobs that are seen as ‘for men’ – from directors all the way to the Supreme Court.  We’ve come a long way towards increased awareness for gender equality in the workplace in recent years, but today women are still paid less than men, represented in fewer board positions, and hold fewer leadership positions in companies. 

Let’s face it, STEM compromises mainly of white males, and people tend to hire people they recognise and identify with.  This unconscious bias can foster negative attitudes and lead to damaging stereotypical behaviours that negatively affect the education, hiring, promotion, and retention of women in STEM. Let’s think about the wonderful Apple Watch. Its tracks everything, your heartbeat, when to take medication – but not menstrual cycle tracker. Clearly no women in the room for that conversation! 

It doesn’t help that there are those who truly believe that women are not suited for STEM careers generally.  Take James Damore’s Google manifesto.  He truly believes the age-old adages: that women are better suited to social and artistic careers; that they would struggle with making controversial leadership decisions and that they are neurotic and can’t handle stress. 

Without realising, many people carry these views subconsciously, and this can influence the hiring or promotion of female employees.  Men themselves have a very important role to play in narrowing the gender gap.  Invariably they are in the seat of the interviewer, and they need to be encouraged, trained and in some cases forced to create diverse teams.  They need training in conscious and unconscious bias, and need to be educated about the benefits of diversity.

It’s not just men

Some women feel that men suit STEM more than they do.  This is why there are so many programmes aimed at getting girls interested in these areas.  These ongoing drives are trying to eradicate and challenge old fashioned view points, that girls are less likely to want be involved in STEM career paths – or that they will find it too tough. 

An attitude overhaul – for both women and men – is needed if we are to close the STEM gender gap.  Through better education and encouragement of both genders, we can chip away at antiquated attitudes and create a more equal workplace.  The bottom line is that women are just as capable as men.  People often ask, “Why should more women get into STEM?”  It’s like asking why women should be doctors.  These on-going drives to get women into science and technology will continue to happen until the question no longer needs to be asked.

Closing the STEM divide is a business driver

If there was ever a reason to assemble a diverse team, surely it is because your business will do better as a result?  According to Forbes, companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35 per cent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.  Diverse companies have on average a 2.3 times higher cash flow per employee over a three-year period than non-diverse companies, according to a 2015 study from Bersin by Deloitte.

The bottom line is that women are just as capable as men, and a healthy mix of both is essential for success in any modern organisation.  The question, therefore, is how can we persuade more women to consider a career STEM? 

The opportunities for women in this industry are rife; it’s a growing trade with growing opportunities.  The gender pay gap is closing in STEM quicker than other industries – in non-tech industries the gap is 21 cents on the dollar, in STEM it is only 14 cents.  There are also plenty of roles available.  By 2020, in the U.S. alone, there will be 1.4 million computer specialist jobs that need filling, and yet we’re only on track to fill 29 per cent of them with specialised graduates.  This is just the start; many STEM jobs that will be available in the next five to ten years do not yet exist.  Martin Boehm of IE University in Spain believes around 80 per cent per cent of jobs that will exist in 2025 don’t exist today

Education is key

Encouraging women to get into STEM ultimately starts with education – from school to the boardroom.  In school, coding should be mandatory for everyone; complex problem solving and critical thinking should be part of every day life.  This will go a long way to defusing the myth that STEM is for boys.  Coding is so effective because it develops different parts of the brain.  Even if children don’t go on to study STEM subjects, coding will still be useful from a skills perspective – particularly as the workplace becomes more reliant on technology. 

Education also falls on parents.  When I was a child, we had computers around the house because my Dad working with Digital in Ireland.  I also remember all the Edward de Bono lateral thinking books we had.  You will absorb what you are exposed to.  As well as that, my Mum was an ardent feminist; she told her daughters they could do and be anything (and her son!).  It was only when I started school that I realised people thought and told girls they couldn’t do things.  Education and encouragement, fundamentally, is key to overhauling out-dated thinking.

Industry role models

In the workplace, training programmes can help people understand conscious and unconscious bias; both helping people to change the way they think, and call out unfair behaviour.  But getting female talent into the industry is only half the story.  Ensuring they have the help and support to rise up the ranks is crucial.  Women in leadership training programmes are effective, but sponsorship is key.  Studies show that with sponsorship, women in STEM are 200 per cent more likely to have their ideas implemented.

A lot needs to change if we are to close the gender gap in STEM.  Young girls often feel like they don’t have a place in STEM, so they don’t choose to study for STEM qualifications.  Female professionals in STEM often feel this too – even after pursuing qualifications and careers in the industry.  The issue is reflective of the lack of female role models in technology and STEM as a whole.  Male leaders dominate the field; we need more of them sponsoring women’s career development and advocating for their advancement if women are to have long and rewarding careers in STEM.

Ultimately, to be something, you need to see something.  Ada Lovelace Day is great – and it matters.  But we need to be celebrating female role models in STEM everyday.  With greater visibility for successful women in STEM – and there are many of them – better education and more encouragement, we can chip away at out-dated biases and create a healthier gender balance in this rewarding and exciting industry.

Tara O’Sullivan, CMO, Skillsoft
Image Credit: GaudiLab / Shutterstock