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Women in STEM – changing perceptions to shape a new ‘norm’

(Image credit: Image Credit: GaudiLab / Shutterstock)

Government data tells us that in 2019 we reached one million women in core-STEM occupations in the UK. As a standalone figure, this appears to be impressive, but dig a little deeper and we can see that the proportion of tech roles filled by women flatlined at 16 percent since 2009, leaving significant room for improvement in this subsection. Entering a sector that has been dominated by men for decades is not without its challenges and there are a number of hurdles for the next generation to overcome if we are to achieve true change. Hannah Tempest, head of experience delivery at strategic UX agency, Nomensa, believes much of the issue comes down to representation – or rather the lack of it.

Hannah initially started in an ‘art-focused’ profession as a graphic designer, but later moved across to user experience, combining psychology and digital to help humanize technology. Yet, this didn’t come without its challenges. “In 2003, men were quite difficult when you entered the technology market and women were often overlooked by typically middle management males in the room. They always assumed you were just in there to take notes or take care of the ‘fluffier’ tasks, even when I reached a more senior level.”

Her experience is reflective of recent research from the UN Development Programme (UNDP) which found that 90 percent of men and women are biased against women, despite progress towards closing the equality gap. This report collected data from 75 countries, home to more than 80 percent of the global population and more than 40 percent believe men are better business executives. Research by Bizzabo which spanned 23 countries and over 60,000 event speakers highlighted that between 2013-2018, almost 70 percent of all event speaker were male. The United Kingdom was below average in these rankings, with just 25 percent of speakers being female. However, when looking at IT events specifically, 80 percent of the speakers were male and this diversity has barely improved.

Judged on appearance

Hannah explains: “When men get on stage to talk about their work, their research and opinions, they are immediately respected for their brainpower and insight. Yet, women are first and foremost judged on their appearance, even now. You only have to look at comments on YouTube of a women delivering talks in the technology sector, or event beyond, to find examples full of negativity and prejudice.”

This may be down to the age-old assumption that women should be seen and not heard and when they do speak, they are criticized for taking up ‘too much’ of the share of voice and it’s often assumed that women do more of the talking than they actually do. Yet the research tells us that this isn’t the case. A study by Barbara and Gene Eakins recorded seven university faculty meetings and found that with just one exception, men spoke longer than the women in the room and this trend is prevalent across many industries, including STEM sectors. Hannah believes it’s time to change this perception and representation is key to true equality.

“Despite the negativity mentioned, I think it’s critical that women continue to push forward and represent themselves in the tech industry. It’s important that young girls see examples of women operating within a particular sector to highlight the opportunities that are available to them. That’s why for Nomensa’s flagship events, Interact London and Collaborate Bristol, we always curate a 50/50 gender speaker split to bring greater diversity of thought, and our Managing Director is a woman - I love being a part of this culture. I recently took to the stage at Interact London myself to talk around digital evolution and the reception I had was incredibly positive. If women across the UK and the world continue to take to the stage and share their expertise, it will help to change perceptions and put women at the forefront of STEM-centered conversations. After all, it’s important to influence women at a younger age, exposing them to the profiles of women across these sectors.”

Gender bias

A lack of representation can have a significant impact on the next generation. According to research by PwC, 78 percent of students can’t name a famous female working in technology, and just 16 percent of females have had a career in technology suggested to them, compared to 33 percent of their male peers. Gender Bias Without Borders also highlighted that on-screen STEM roles are largely played by men, with just 12 percent of on-screen characters with identifiable STEM roles played by women. Perhaps then due to the lack of role models, it’s unsurprising that just 3 percent of students joining information and communication technology (ICT) courses at a higher education level are women. For Hannah and other women in the sector, these figures are concerning.

“I think as an industry, we’ve come a long way in the last five years in particular, but we still have a long way to go to change perceptions in order to create a new ‘norm’ and to increase the number of women in the sector. I believe that the only way to see progress is to increase representation. We need to show the next generation that there are opportunities out there for them and they don’t always have to take a traditional route to get there.”

Research by WISE, the campaign for gender balance in STEM recently claimed that the UK is on track to have 1 million working in core STEM roles by the end of 2020, with the latest figures on record reporting 900,000 women operating within the sector.  However, breaking down the seniority of these women is another article in itself too. Evidently, there’s still a long way to go to achieve true diversity within STM sectors and this is something that women like Hannah will continue to strive for in order to make a positive impact and lead the way for the next generation.

“I have a 13-year-old daughter and I’m always worried that she’ll be put off from STEM subjects due to the gender bias around them, so I’m mindful to show her what options are available to her and to show her incredible women from history who’ve led the way in their sectors, including NASA’s hidden figures who played pivotal roles in the moon landing. I want her to see that she can be whatever she wants to be and doesn’t have to adhere to gender stereotypes.”

Hannah Tempest, Head of experience delivery, Nomensa