Four ways to shrink the gender gap in STEM

A significant gender disparity exists in the STEM field.  According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), women received more than half of university degrees in OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries in 2008, but only 30 percent of these degrees were in science and technology.

The percentage of female graduates becoming science and technology researchers is even lower; it is pegged at less than 30 percent in most OECD countries, reaching a low of 12 percent in Japan and Korea. In addition, the World Economic Forum has predicted that, at the current rate of change, the global gender gap will not be closed until 2133.

The vast under-representation of women in STEM is a growing concern, especially for girls and women with goals and ambitions in technology. Knocking down gender barriers and encouraging young women to join the STEM workforce is a vital first step, and part of this entails cultivating a diverse and inclusive environment that promotes fairness for both genders when it comes to learning, work, and other opportunities. When girls recognize that pursuing STEM endeavors is a viable option, only then will we see more women joining the STEM workforce—which, in turn, could drive unprecedented innovation in the industry.

Below are some practical pointers that can help shrink the gender gap and level the playing field for women in STEM.

Engage girls in STEM education at an early age

The gender myth of boys being more hard-wired for science and math than girls has been busted many times, but this prejudice continues to be pervasive.  To overcome this stereotype, parents, educators and others can encourage girls to take up STEM subjects while simultaneously building up their skills, self-confidence and self-esteem.  Girls should be given the same opportunity as boys to study and engage with STEM topics at an early age.

Girls2Pioneer, a campaign started by the Singapore Committee for UN Women, MasterCard and Standard Chartered Bank in 2014, was set up to inspire girls to pursue STEM careers. STEM day camps were conducted for young women between 10 and 15 years old. These girls were given puzzles and problems to solve using everyday objects.  Through these activities, girls were able to develop further their critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and cultivate their self-confidence in STEM subjects.

Encourage participation in STEM workshops

An increasing number of STEM workshops cater exclusively to girls, helping to dispel the gender stereotype and equipping young women with tips and tricks on navigating STEM fields.

In Asia Pacific, Microsoft has hosted several female students from various schools and colleges for its Digigirlz Day program, which offers high school girls the opportunity to learn about careers in technology, connect with Microsoft employees, and participate in hands-on computer and technology workshops.

Connect with other women in STEM

One of the first names that inevitably pops up when talking about women in STEM is Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer of social media giant Facebook. For many girls and women, Sandberg represents an ideal or role model.  Her writings, speeches and other activities can help women understand the day-to-day challenges in the life of a STEM professional, and what it takes to reach the top.  But beyond famous faces like Sandberg, girls and women can look to others in the STEM field, including teachers, researchers, and entrepreneurs, to get inspiration and practical insight.  Research shows that women in STEM fields often feel isolated and unwelcome in areas dominated by men.  Belonging to a network of other women in STEM can generate positive energy and help women sustain their interest and work in these exciting fields.

Girls2Pioneer, the program mentioned above, also includes a networking component.  It conducts field trips to STEM organizations, including the Mechanobiology Institute, the Cancer Science Institute, and Infineon, where participants get to meet women in STEM and see how they work—and thrive—in their workplace. They also get the opportunity to learn from these inspiring women on how to remain confident, patient, and assertive in the face of challenges.

In January 2016, senior members of the Microsoft Corporate, External and Legal Affairs (CELA) department participated in a program to develop young women scientists from Mekong countries. Together with President Obama’s science adviser, Microsoft participated in training these young women scientists on soft skills needed to build a successful career in science.  The women participants also had the opportunity to network with one another and with their more senior counterparts.

Work with a mentor in STEM industries

Mentorship is a great catalyst for shaping and guiding career development.  Mentors can share career knowledge as well as on-the-job experiences. This especially applies to girls and women looking to pursue a STEM career; having a mentor can mean having a role model, a counselor, and an ally—all of which can benefit a mentee’s long-term career advancement. A mentor can be especially helpful in providing pointers on how to overcome challenges related to the gender imbalance in STEM work environments.

Girls in Tech, for example, is an international non-profit that empowers women in technology. Through a program called Girls in Tech Xchange in Asia, the organization brings a select group of women together from around the world to learn about various start-up ecosystems, meet with entrepreneurs and innovators, and cultivate lasting relationships, including mentorships.

Through workshops, networking events and mentorship programs, Microsoft strives to support and nurture girls, women, and its own female employees. Over the next three years, Microsoft will be investing $75 million in community programs to increase access to computer science education for all youth, while working in many other ways to ensure greater diversity in the technology talent pipeline.

In celebration of International Women’s Day this year, we are calling on girls to get curious and #MakeWhatsNext in computer science—and to develop great ideas through technology. With hundreds of girls from around the world, Digigirlz events will be taking place at several global locations, beginning on 8 March and concluding during International Girls in ICT Day on 28 April.

Together, we can break barriers and make way for more women in STEM.

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