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Fixing STEM's gender bias with more classroom intervention

Experts suggest the government must step in to break generational barriers and ramp up promising schemes

The science, engineering, technology and mathematics (STEM) fields have traditionally suffered from poor diversity. On several fronts like gender and race, sectors such as tech, mathematics, and manufacturing have failed to cultivate a diverse workforce.

“Things are not getting any better in terms of diversity in tech,” Dr Kate Devlin, a reader in artificial intelligence (AI) and society at King’s College London, and expert on human interactions with technology, and its social implications, tells IT Pro. “It's a longstanding problem, and things aren't improving, despite there being many initiatives to try and do it. And in my own sub-field of that, which is AI, it's particularly bad.

Devlin was recently blocked from giving a speech to a government department about women in STEM, in which she was set to both praise the government for some of its initiatives, while calling for greater focus on the sectoral changes required. 

“I was going to be talking about the way in which Silicon Valley – the whole setup of it – exploits women,” she continues. “That's very evident in the technology that we use every day; it's always women as an afterthought, which is why Apple didn't bring out menstrual tracking until a late iteration of the health app. 

“The odds are still stacked against women in tech, and that's both algorithmically and in the workplace. And that we know AI has got a particularly egregious bias problem.”

Representation begins in the classroom

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Things are muddied by statistics, however. For instance, in terms of participation in education, one can argue there’s been a positive trend. Government figures show 30% more women and girls are now taking STEM A-Levels than in 2010, and, at undergraduate level, there has been a 50% increase in women accepted onto courses. 

Looking at workforce statistics, too, shows some minor signs of optimism. Women comprised 26.6% of the STEM workforce in 2021 – up from 24.4% in 2020 – according to research by Women into Science and Engineering (WISE). Nevertheless, STEM continues to be male-dominated. Given the sluggishness of this progress, though, and alarmingly low starting point, it’s no surprise that Devlin and others see the landscape as getting worse. 

“The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) recent Global Gender Gap Report warns that progress towards gender parity has slowed globally,” Betty Vandenbosch, chief content officer at online course provider Coursera tells IT Pro

“It will now take 132 years to close the global gender gap – up from an estimated 100 years just two years ago. Factors contributing to this widening gap include women leaving the workforce during COVID-19 as a result of care responsibilities, a lack of flexibility within the workplace, and poor opportunities to advance their careers.”

Although the record numbers of women taking computer science degrees are encouraging, more can be done by the government to encourage young girls and women into STEM, says Heather Dawe, who is head of data at digital transformation firm UST. She has more than 20 years’ experience in the sector, having worked at a senior level as a statistician within the public and private sectors. 

“Progression in diversifying STEM industries largely starts within the education system – it is here that young women can first be shown what a career in STEM can empower them to achieve and create,” Dawe tells IT Pro. “Here, the widespread perception of STEM subjects being male-centric can be reversed, when young girls can be shown the pathways for themselves in technology leadership roles. Setting a standard for representation and creating a sense of belonging within STEM starts in the classroom.”

For specific policy changes, Dawe pointed to the government’s recently announced secondary school initial teacher training (ITT) bursaries, which will provide STEM student teachers with up to £27,000 per year. She hopes this will encourage more female STEM students to pursue teaching as a career, with a degree of financial support, but urged the government to launch more initiatives aimed specifically at women.

Christine Bejerasco, CTO at WithSecure, agrees girls have to be shown other options early in life, and thinks that the private sector, too, has a far larger role to play in encouraging young girls into STEM throughout their schooling experience.“It could be part of tech companies’ social responsibility to go to schools, even at the younger stages, and not just preach but have programmes where children can tinker with these things.

“By the time you're a teenager, it may be too late,” she adds. “We’re going into universities all the time, and that's already towards the latter stage when people have already decided. That’s why the course that I taught was predominantly men, with one woman. If we had gotten there earlier, there could have been more diversity in the classroom.”

The gender diversity crisis is intersectional 

Devlin argues the government can definitely do more to break down the perception of STEM as a male-dominated field, and that some of its calls for action have fallen flat. Despite this, she acknowledges that changes to education have been largely positive, and that girls in school, today, offer hope to the industry.

“There are some good things that have been done, the curriculum now is starting very early to talk about algorithms – it talks about those from Key Stage 1 onwards. And there's lots of talk about interdisciplinarity being introduced, particularly in AI.

“We can certainly start education early on. It used to be, probably still is, that by the time girls reach secondary school age, they were quite put off subjects like maths and computer science. But I've seen the way my own daughter – she’s 12 – uses technology, and she and her friends just love Minecraft. The stuff that they can do in a game that’s entirely self-taught, I just think that’s wonderful.”

It’s worth acknowledging the lack of diversity within the sector is also an intersectional problem, with black women disproportionately underrepresented in STEM roles as compared to white counterparts. “Just recently, research from Coding Black Females found that the number of black women in IT is two-and-a-half times smaller than that of the UK workforce as a whole,” says Kiri Addison, threat detection and efficacy product manager at Mimecast.

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Addison notes the government could reframe these numbers into an opportunity for industry-wide collaboration, with the aim of tackling the gender gap. Such a scheme could also break stigmas around working in STEM roles, and attract a far more diverse talent pool for the future of the industry.

“Governments can work with many institutions to raise awareness of the current diversity challenges in STEM by creating scholarships with universities and apprenticeship schemes. With technical training, more people will be able to see if there is a potential career path in STEM and will be encouraged to apply for more roles.”

You can’t play diversity by numbers

Devlin is also quick to note that diversity isn’t purely a numbers game, but instead needs to be enabled through a cultural shift that can empower those women already in the workforce.

“I've just come back from an amazing conference, World Summit AI in Amsterdam. It’s run by a woman and founded by a woman, and it was incredible in terms of diversity,” Devlin tells IT Pro. “There were panels that accidentally ended up all women panels because that's where the expertise was, as opposed to this striving where someone says “I need a woman for a panel”. So, this is completely possible, it's really doable. It's just that the emphasis is not being put on that.”

Across the sector, Devlin indicates there’s a great need for women to be encouraged into these positions, and for male counterparts to do more to champion women for their expertise rather than as token panellists.

It’s clear more needs to be done to improve gender diversity in STEM, but the long-term impetus appears to be on the government to do more for girls and women earlier in life. If generational barriers are broken down through educational opportunities and a concurrent cultural shift across the sector, diversity could be improved in the long term, before biases become any more entrenched in emerging fields such as AI.

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