There are women with flourishing science and technology careers, but work is needed to make this the norm rather than the exception. Here, industr
There are women with flourishing science and technology careers, but work is needed to make this the norm rather than the exception.
Here, industry leaders explain the importance of breaking through stereotypes and giving support and mentorship to the next generation of female Stem talent
Despite making up half of the workforce, women only comprise 14.4% of all people working in Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths). Many different reasons are posited for why this may be the case: girls are less likely to study Stem subjects such as physics, chemistry, and maths at school, or continue them on to university.
Some researchers believe that girls internalise gender-based prejudice from childhood onwards, leading them to mistakenly believe that boys are inherently better at Stem subjects due to some innate ability (although there is no evidence that men are biologically better at certain subjects than women).
But how do you bust the myth that Stem careers are only for the boys? And how do we nurture the next generation of female Stem talent?
“I wish it wasn’t true, but I think gender stereotyping still plays a big part in deterring women from entering Stem,” says Dr Sian Morris, associate director for scientific communications at P&G.
A veteran of the company, Morris joined P&G in 1992, and since then has worked in a plethora of roles, including developing cosmetics that are still on sale today, and working in the consumer understanding team to gain insight into who buys P&G products across the globe.
It’s been a diverse and varied career, and one that has enabled Morris to gain a huge range of professional experiences. But Morris believes that many young girls might be deterred from enjoying a creative and fulfilling career like hers, due to the gendered expectations we instil in young girls.
“There’s this idea of ‘pink jobs’ and ‘blue jobs’ that still exists,” she says. “It starts early in life, and if it’s nurtured in the classroom, then girls opt out of Stem.” It’s critical, Morris argues, to challenge the false expectation girls often have that boys are simply better at Stem.
“Some girls simply self-deselect. Girls and women are naturally tough on ourselves, and that, combined with having to fight for airtime in a boy-dominated class, or being put down for your interests, can sometimes make you find a different path.”
Of course, it’s not all about encouraging women to study Stem subjects at school and university: it’s also about helping them feel supported and nurtured in their career, and particularly helping them to navigate the challenges of having a family and working. Many of the women I speak to cite the importance of female mentors and role models early in their careers as pivotal to their success.
“I’m lucky to have an inspirational mentor who provides great support and taught me the importance of making courageous choices, even when they’re unpopular,” explains Ilaria Ambrogio, principal scientist at P&G.
For senior IT manager Sinead Devine, being a woman in IT felt challenging, especially early on. “When I started, I was in the minority,” she remembers, “and I felt that even more when I had my first child, about four years into my career.”
But Devine used that feeling of being one of the few, not the many, to help champion a better work-life balance for working parents at P&G, with considerable success. “The number of female IT professionals is more balanced now, and there’s a better network to support women in all phases of their careers.”
Some women still feel there’s a lot of unlearning you have to do to rise to the top as a woman in Stem, such as unlearning the social checks we place upon girls in adolescence that they carry throughout their adult lives: aim high, but not too high; be successful, but never boast; avoid confrontation or handle challenging situations by trying to please people, rather than forging your own path.
These gendered norms may impede some women from achieving their full potential in Stem careers – which is why they need to be unlearned.
“I’ve grown in confidence in my ability to have true leadership, which isn’t a quality I had when I was at college,” Devine explains. “I’ve learned to hold my own in more challenging situations, and not just to be louder than anyone else, but to be more strategic and really drive decisions.”
What advice would these industry leaders give to young women looking to get into Stem? “Be receptive to new possibilities and break through stereotypes,” urges Ursula Heng of P&G’s beauty delivery engineering division. “If you’re encountering prejudice, educate others, but above all – find your voice.”
Also, stay true to yourself. “Women are still a minority in Stem,” Heng acknowledges, “but that doesn’t mean you have to be someone else in order to thrive. P&G is a great company to work for, because it genuinely values diversity, and that enables everyone to bring their true self to work.”
Even though there are as many Stem careers as there are elements in the periodic table, many girls may continue to view the industry in terms of narrow stereotypes. “There’s this idea that a career in Stem means you’re either a white coat-wearing laboratory scientist, an engineer in overalls and a hard hat, or a slightly eccentric academic professor,” Heng says.
“But there are many instances of engineers and scientists working in completely different environments on a range of applications that affect every aspect of our lives: digitisation, weather patterns, or transport systems. They are very important, fabulous, and extremely relevant!”
Thankfully, things are changing. One recent study found that more women have entered Stem in the past 40 years than any other field. But further work needs to be done to help encourage these women to stay in the industry, grow, and support and nurture the next generation of female talent. Still, when reflecting on the next generation of young, female students, Morris feels ebullient.
“They are enthusiastic, energetic, curious, fun, and eager to translate their passion for science and engineering into careers,” she says. “Now we just need to make sure that when girls do have that spark of interest in Stem, we foster it and fan it into a flame and keep it burning bright.”