Bridging the gender gap in STEM education

International Women's Day is an opportunity to highlight the progress we have seen and want to see in terms of freedom, rights and opportunities for women. This day, celebrated worldwide, shows us the progress that has been made; however, there are still changes to be seen.

According to the new edition of the European Commission's "She figures", some parity has been achieved among women with a doctorate. The study shows that in 2018, women represented 48.1% of doctoral graduates. However, they were mainly over-represented in fields such as education and health science and under-represented in technology and engineering. Although the gender gap in PhDs has narrowed, there are still very few women pursuing certain fields of study that are considered predominantly male, and this is due in part to conformity to social expectations, gender stereotypes, gender roles and lack of role models, and it continues to channel girls' career choices away from STEM fields. "It is true that we have an issue of lack of female representation in STEM. Women only represent 33% of researchers, and only 20% of top-level academics are women. In industry, things are not looking up either", highlights Dr Agueda Gras-Velazquez, Science Programme Manager - Head of the Science Education Department (European Schoolnet).

The value of having women in the STEM sector allows us to broaden our perspectives, enrich the exchange and decision-making in the research conducted - thereby avoiding internalised biases and prejudices - and draw on diverse profiles to produce results that will apply to a wider sample.

Although women constitute half of the world's population, their needs are hardly ever taken into account, mainly because we live in a world built by men for men. Many studies point out that women have difficulty finding equipment that fits them and their morphology (e.g., knee braces, hearing protection, or seat belts), yet we still find that many of these inventions are adapted and designed for men. Without women in STEM, innovation will be limited and exclude half the population. More women in STEM are needed to foster innovation and better represent the needs of society.

A further reason for inspiring women to enter this field of study and career is the professional prospects. There is a need to encourage young girls to engage in future occupations and to take part in the jobs that will build our future society. In 2014, the European Commission predicted that Europe could face a shortage of up to 900,000 skilled information and communication technology workers by 2020. In 2017, they adjusted this to a deficit of 500,000.

This gender gap may be a brake on the digital transformation that the European Commission wants to achieve. It will be hard to build an ICT-friendly Europe if the opportunities for learning and development do not include everyone, especially women.

Among the factors contributing to the under-representation of women and girls in STEM, the sector notably lacks female figures in the field. Role models can inspire and reduce self-stereotypes of stigmatised groups, which may be the case for women in male-dominated STEM fields. "We, humans, learn by example, so by providing access to these role models with their personal stories and struggles, we offer girls a great insight on what their future in STEM can be. As we often say, if you can see something, then you can become it", added Evita Tasiopoulou, STEM Project and Pedagogical Manager at European Schoolnet. "For example, through the STEAM IT project and its Repository of STEM Jobs Profiles, it is possible to meet women in the STEM field, learn about the diverse and varied jobs in this field and find inspiration for teaching and integrating STEM education into the classroom".

Parents and teachers must play an essential role in empowering young girls and breaking down stereotypes about certain studies and professions, as receiving support both at home and in the classroom is a key factor in encouraging young girls to engage in scientific studies. In addition, Scientix, through numerous webinars and workshops for parents and teachers, helps them understand the power of stereotypes, learn how to identify them and gradually eliminate them.

European Schoolnet's STEM Discovery Campaign is one of many initiatives and educational programmes focused on STEM education that promote diversity and inclusion. This international initiative invites projects, organisations, schools, and other stakeholders to promote careers and studies in this field by organising and supporting STEM-related activities.

The coming years will be crucial in terms of societal and digital transformation, with the STEM sector seemingly dominating. Fighting for gender equality and parity is also about ensuring that everyone can access the new knowledge that will build our future. That means creating new opportunities, democratising education, raising awareness at a young age, and deconstructing stereotypes at home and in the classroom.

According to Dr Agueda Gras-Velazquez, "STEM is present in virtually all aspects of our lives. That is why we believe everyone should have access to STEM education, emphasising the value of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. This year, we encourage every educational stakeholder to organise events and activities that raise student awareness and make STEM accessible to everyone, showcasing key skills that students and our societies will need in the near future".