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Opinion 09 February 2021

Women and STEM: a journey full of obstacles

StackOverflow is well known in the programming world. On the one hand, it is a portal of questions and answers where developers selflessly help each other with technical issues. It has around 100 million visitors per month and is one of the 50 most popular websites in the world. But it is also famous for its annual reports that analyze the most popular programming languages, or the average salary of its users depending on their role and country based on a survey of 65,000 users. The report includes demographic data, drawing attention to the fact that only eight percent of surveyed users are women.

This devastating fact from a site as popular as StackOverflow has two main explanations (which are not mutually exclusive):

  1. The number of women who work in programming – either professionally or as a hobby – is significantly lower than the number of men.
  2. The widespread harassment women experience on many online platforms and video games leads them to stay away from these kinds of websites or pretend to be men. The company has recognized the fact that StackOverflow is not a friendly site for various groups, especially women.

This concerning fact is yet another of the many facts showing that unlike other sectors, the professional field of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) continues to be a hostile place for women, and makes this clear to them from an early age.

Women and society

The first university in Spain was founded in 1212 in Salamanca, but it took 660 years for the first woman to be able to register (Elena Maseras in 1872), and they could not do so in equal conditions until 1910. Currently, nearly 58 percent of those registered at Spanish universities are women. Women were not allowed to vote in Spain until 1931. Now, the percentage of female MPs in Spain is 44 percent.

This highly significant data could give the impression that once women’s rights are equal to men’s, they will gradually occupy the space in society that corresponds to them. Equity therefore becomes a matter of time.

Unfortunately, this is not the case in many aspects of society or at certain levels of private companies, where positions of power continue to be mainly held by men. Spain has not yet had a female Prime Minister, governor of the Bank of Spain, Minister of the Interior, Minister of Defense, Director of the Royal Spanish Academy, or leader of a major union. Just 30 percent of the board members on IBEX 35 companies are women. Of the 2,095 billionaires around the world included on Forbes’ list, only 244 are women; and of the 930 people who have received the Nobel Prize since it was created in 1901, just 57 are women.

The STEM field is one of the areas where women’s presence is not growing to the level that it should according to their participation in society. Instead, it is even regressing, creating what is known as the STEM gap. It is estimated that only 30 percent of women in the world study STEM fields (a percentage that drops to three percent in fields related to information technologies or to eight percent in engineering).

This inequality goes beyond universities. The women working in STEM fields tend to earn less than their male colleagues and what is even worse: the likelihood that they will abandon  their professional career is very high, particularly for mothers (for example, nearly half of the female scientists in the U.S. stop working in this sector full time after having their first child).

If we focus on the role of women at the biggest tech companies in the world, we find that despite their efforts, women are clearly underrepresented:

  • At Apple, women represent 33 percent of the workforce. This percentage drops to 29 percent for leadership positions. And if we focus exclusively on technical roles, just 23 percent are women – a trend that is repeated in nearly all companies.
  • At Facebook, women represent 37 percent of the workforce, 34.2 percent of leadership positions and 24.1 percent of technical roles.
  • At Google, women represent 31.6 percent of the workforce, a percentage that drops to 26.1 percent for leadership positions and 25.7 percent for technical roles.

Women in STEM

In light of this data, two questions emerge: what is the reason for this discrimination and why do inequalities persist in field that have been “conquered” by female talent? The American Association of University Women (AAUW), a non-profit organization that works on gender equality issues, notes that the main reasons are the following:

  • Gender stereotypes: the STEM sector continues to be perceived as eminently masculine and both parents and teachers discourage girls from a young age, questioning their math abilities.
  • Prominently masculine professional environments: as many female professionals from the sector reveal on a daily basis, the professional environments are not exactly inclusive and sexism and harassment remain rampant.
  • Lack of female role models: When discussing science and technology, the vast majority of references girls hear are masculine. Although women have contributed immensely to this field, especially in technology, their contribution has been erased by popular culture (a good example is the film industry’s narration of ‘Bletchley Park’, the British base where the Nazi’s secret code was deciphered, where women’s  role in this was fundamental as they made up 75 percent of the workers) and in most movies are just a distraction or inspiration for the ‘male geniuses’. This phenomenon is recurrent in Hollywood’s most popular movies when it comes to depicting scientists: male scientists outnumber their female colleagues two to one, and female scientists are generally white, attractive, childless and single.

The fact that over half of the global population must face greater difficulties than the rest when it comes to studying or practicing professions related to science and technology is a multifaceted problem that we should all address if we want to aspire to a more just society. Some of the things we can do as individuals to try to alleviate this situation are:

  • Do not minimize the problem.
  • Do not contribute to the discrimination.
  • Always listen to women who express their complaints regarding situations of discrimination.
  • Recognize and give visibility to women’s immense legacy in the STEM field.
  • Remember that diverse teams are more efficient, productive and creative.

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