STEM fields (i.e., Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) enable us to find solutions to threats posed by global challenges such as climate change, health epidemics and water waste. Essentially, they are crucial for sustainable development. Despite rising demand for STEM professionals, women are often underrepresented in these fields. Studies show that they only constitute 21% of the workforce in STEM industries (down to 8% in engineering professional occupations). Unfortunately, numbers are not expected to find an equilibrium in the short term: the World Economic Forum estimates that it will take us 170 years before we achieve worldwide gender parity.
In this regard, I had the great pleasure of interviewing Aditi Lachman, Programme Coordinator at WomEng, a non-profit which focuses on the personal and professional development of women in the engineering sector. My conversation with Aditi was particularly insightful to explore and understand the causes and effects of the phenomenon, providing the foundations to explore new perspectives and business models for this issue.
In her eight years experience, Aditi came across both extrinsic and intrinsic challenges that prevent women from pursuing a career in STEM fields. On one hand, “cultural norms and societal perceptions of what an engineer is systematically reinforces men to go into the field while discouraging women. Stereotypes and marketing around STEM industries are still big challenges”. On the other hand, “women are leapfrogging generations of growth: we often come from households where women were rarely in the work environment. Contrary to men, who don’t have this generational knowledge deficit. We will need many generations before ending this perpetual cycle” (figure 1).
Is this only a women problem? Beyond the fact that men and women should have equal professional opportunities and be “selected” based on their relevant skills and expertise, there is evidence that gender-diverse teams perform better than single-gender teams (e.g., Gallup Business Journal, McKinsey). Similarly, Aditi highlights that “the lack of the female perspective is particularly problematic for the field of engineering because, as a creative profession, engineering requires diverse teams to yield different points of view resulting in better thought products. Moreover, women are considered the world’s most powerful consumers driving 70-80% all consumer purchasing and make up 52% of the world population”.
The Pivotal Role of High Schools
As a consequence of extrinsic and intrinsic challenges, self-confidence and courage in following own dreams are heavily affected. In one of the several workshops with high-school students, Aditi and her team noticed that “when in a class of only girls, the discussion is particularly vivid. However, when both boys and girls attend, the girls become less interactive, showing some sort of embarrassment and fearing judgments from the male side of the class”.
Interestingly, “high school is the time where generally the self-confidence of a woman reaches the lowest point”. Essentially, high school period is very fragile and a pivotal time when a girl could grow up with passion and interest in STEM subjects and decide to undertake that path or, the other way around, not feeling good enough”.
SpaceX and Netflix to Stop Gender Stereotypes
Aditi highlights how “TV series like Grey’s Anatomy manage to build characters that are taken as fictional role models by teenagers. Boys and girls get inspired by the protagonists to the point that they dream to live it in first person”. Of course fiction is often times “augmenting” reality and not necessarily educational but it can definitely be a strong source of inspiration. For example, recent studies in UK stated that 50% of doctors chose their career after watching an episode of Casualty, a British TV show first broadcasted in 1986.
Nowadays teenagers are spending about 35% of their spare time on streamed shows. The number is likely to rise, considering that Netflix and other providers are investing in younger generations with dedicated series. This is a great opportunity for STEM industries, because TV shows could work as a channel to make these fields more exciting, build inspiring role models and ultimately break the stereotypes, showing that women can play a key role in these industries.
But what is the stake for Netflix and other providers? NASA, General Electrics, Samsung, Bosch, etc…they are the ones that should invest in new, inspiring TV series. Not only financially supporting the production but co-designing and co-authoring TV shows. These companies, through their employees, have experience, knowledge and equipment to support the provider (e.g. Netflix) with first hand stories. On the other side, the provider has the production capabilities and the customer reach. This partnership is essential to create stories that engage and inspire today’s boys and girls to build gender-diverse, successful teams of tomorrow. In particular, we believe that these players could benefit from this powerful collaboration (figure 2):
Women – in the short-medium term, girls can find inspiration in novel, engaging scenes on the screen, where women play an essential role, in close collaboration with men. Their self-confidence could increase (intrinsic challenge), looking at how STEM industries can be run by smart, creative women. Women that deal with career and family as much as men do. Ultimately, girls can change their perspective on science and technology, learning that such industries are not always boring but, the other way round, particularly impactful and appealing.
Men – changing boy’s perspective on the phenomenon is probably the strongest boost to kill stereotypes of tomorrow’s men towards women (extrinsic challenge). Watching TV shows where women’s potential is clearly pictured, makes boys aware of the importance and value of a gender-mixed environment at work. Plus, let’s face it: they would be happy to share their class with more, motivated women!
STEM Industries – having mentioned the value for businesses in running projects with gender-diverse teams, we believe that companies investing early in building new fictional role models can have a competitive advantage on late comers. The benefit could be measured in returns, business performance, company image and talent pool.
TV Shows Providers – engaging women in STEM might not be the first priority for Netflix and similar providers. However, investments and partnerships with STEM industry could be turned into engaging stories and therefore into a valuable source of income.
Government – gender-parity is on the todo list of several countries – especially the ones committing to the sustainable development goals. A growing engagement of women in STEM industries means a more sustainable economy, where women can lead in major technical and policy positions that enable more young girls to take up STEM subjects.
Cultural boundaries – changing the narrative of women in STEM industries through mainstream media may be tougher in certain parts of the world where regressive gender roles are embedded in culture, such as some parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Societies where these perceptions are most entrenched rarely consume media in the same way as western countries and therefore alternative channels would need to be utilised to promote diverse role models. However, in these areas, the government may play a bigger role as they have more to gain. There is generally a deficit of skilled workforce in STEM industries in developing countries which is a great impediment on development, therefore it is to the advantage of the government to have more people streamlined into these industries, regardless of gender.
Access to Internet – despite the increasing number of TV shows and their providers, internet accessibility remains a big hurdle. While certain countries can rely on stable and fast networks, many others still don’t have enough bandwidth to stream or download videos. This is where the roles of government and private sector are key in ensuring that SDG 9 (build resilient infrastructure) is prioritized. This is essential to support a business model like the one proposed.
Mismatching expectations – on one side, STEM industries might leverage the investments in industry related TV shows to primarily place products and strengthen the brand image instead of building stories that empower the role of women. On the other hand, girls choosing STEM subjects for their studies could realize soon that reality is different from the fictional representation they saw on the screen.
Impact measurement – assessing the benefits of such medium/long term investment is not an easy task. In order to encourage STEM industries in supporting these kinds of initiatives, a clear vision and specific indicators are necessary.
Credits: Icons in problem tree and solution bridge: Tomas Knopp, The Noun Project