A woman of incredible beauty and intellect, Greek philosopher Hypatia was a trailblazer. She was one of the first females to publicly excel in the learning arena we now call STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Around 400 AD, she headed the Platonist School in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, teaching astronomy and philosophy. Astonishingly, nearly two millennia later, a thought-leading female in a STEM-related field still captures many more headlines than her male counterpart. Surely the conversation should have evolved to be more focused on innovation than gender? Nichelle Nichols, former NASA Ambassador and actress, said it best: “Science is not a boy's game, it's not a girl's game. It's everyone's game.”
A paradigm shift will in large part be spurred by role models and mentors. Showcasing success stories of women who have pushed boundaries, regardless of gender-orientated roadblocks, gives girls and women a real-world foundation for their own ambitions. Mentors need not only be celebrities and leading women in STEM, but also inspirational teachers and supportive family members. “I am the mother of a 7-year-old girl, my sister works in education and I love interacting with kids. I had the chance as a kid to be influenced by my mother to choose a scientific career. Now, it is my turn,” explained Marta Bajko, a researcher at CERN, one of the world’s largest centres for scientific research.
Many ladies’ names are already in lights, celebrated for their intellectual vigour and professional daring. Marie Curie is the first person to win two Nobel Prizes, in 1903 and 1911, for her contributions to science. Dian Fossey made unparalleled contributions to zoology, primatology and anthropology during the 18 years she spent in Rwanda, and in 2014, Maryam Mirzakhani was the first woman to win the most prestigious prize in mathematics, the Fields Medal. But Hypatia would not be entirely impressed: the list of such successes is still not long enough.
“One of the main tools for tackling gender inequality in the sciences is dismantling the barriers to girls and women at home, in the classroom and in the workplace,” said a joint statement in February from UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay and UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. “It is difficult for girls to believe in themselves as scientists, explorers, innovators, engineers and inventors when the images they see on social media, in textbooks and in advertising reflect narrow and limiting gender roles.”
Signs that the tide is changing are emerging – albeit slowly. In the UK, women make up 23% of those in core STEM occupations, according to WISE last October. The organisation aims to inspire girls to choose maths, physics and computing to help achieve gender parity, from the classroom to the boardroom. But while these percentages are low, they reflect a very positive – and long-awaited – trend. More women now work in core STEM than ever before, with 61,430 more in 2017 than in 2016. There are also 12,000 more professional female engineers than in 2016, making up 11% of the total. And 22,000 more women worked as science and engineering technicians last year than in 2016, accounting for 27% of the total.
STEM is also a money game; one in which gender inequality is hindering progress. Approximately 15.1% of engineering undergraduates in the UK last year were women versus more than 30% in India, according to the Women’s Engineering Society (WES). Consider this against two facts: India will surpass the UK to be the world’s fifth largest economy this year and engineering alone contributes 26% of GDP to the UK’s economy, as detailed in the ‘Engineering UK 2017’ report.
A study by STEM Learning, the UK’s largest such organisation, shows that current skills shortages are costing businesses in the sector a total of £1.5 billion per year in temporary staffing, recruitment, training costs and inflated salaries. Businesses are facing a shortfall of 173,400 skilled workers and89% have found that recruitment is taking around 31 days longer than expected for such roles. WES said that enabling women to meet their full potential in work could add a staggering $28 trillion to the UK’s annual GDP in 2025, which would also increase the country’s ranking on the Global Competitiveness Index 2017–2018. The Index covers 137 economies, with the UK down one spot year-on-year to eighth position.
The UK is not alone. Strengthening the academic and social perceptions of females in STEM careers, as well as creating a robust job market, are global challenges. TheAustralian government is investing AUS$4.5 million into funding over four years to encourage more girls and women to study STEM, for example. The private sector is also ramping up its efforts. As part of the company’s push for STEM education, Mastercard is on track with its goal to reach200,000 girls worldwide aged between 10-13 years old with its Girls4Tech programme by 2020.
Galvanizing the number of girls and women in STEM careers will only become more crucial as momentum builds for the 4th Industrial Revolution, a shift highlighted by Professor Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum (WEF). Those who are fluent in what is an increasingly digitized world will stand the tallest in professional circles, so girls’ appetite to explore the digital face of STEM must be supported.
Most importantly, the ears of government, academia, business and the public are more willing to listen and learn than ever before. We must unite our efforts – women and men, side-by-side – and write a new chapter in this ancient field of learning. Hypatia started laying the groundwork 1,618 years ago. Tragically, she became the victim of a brutal murder at the hands of a gang of Christian zealots who hated her forward thinking and intellectual accomplishments. Her legacy however lives on and is of global value. It’s about time we gave everyone equal access to the intellectual playground of STEM.