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Why are there so few women in STEM roles?

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I used to work in a music technology company with approximately 80 percent males and 20 percent females, with few females in development roles. While there I realised that, in today’s environment, this ratio is not unusual for tech companies.

Roles through history

The lack of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) roles has been the subject of much discussion and debate over the past few years. This wasn’t always the case though: computing used to be a woman’s job. Ada Lovelace, a female mathematician, is recognised as the first programmer as she wrote a calculation program for the Analytical Engine in the 1800s, a then theoretical idea proposed by Charles Babbage. Unfortunately, the two didn’t have enough money to build the engine.

Fast forward a century. WWII marks the beginning of women’s entry into engineering roles in the US with women volunteering to help in the US military. Roles were undefined which created confusion about gender stereotypes. In the 60s more and more women entered the STEM industry, backed largely by the feminist movement demanding equality and encouraging women to take an interest in male-dominated fields.

However, things started changing in the mid-80s. Arcade games like Pacman are swapped for the likes of Super Mario Brothers and we saw the release of the Game Boy, which ultimately labels games and tech for males. Even with a third wave of feminism flooding the US, women continue to leave computing degrees, although the amount of women in other STEM degrees still increases.

Why has this happened?

As I worked I realised I was sat in the middle of London’s technology hub surrounded by mostly male colleagues. There were a few women in STEM roles, but why weren’t there more? Issues like a lack of female role models and a lack of flexibility around working hours for parents could play a large factor. Additionally, I wonder, is it because it’s ‘geeky’? When the word originally came about it was associated with gawky males who love maths and science and wear glasses. Not cool, not high fashion and not something you want to be seen as or with. However, in recent years, geek has become fashionable and being intelligent has become cool, so perhaps STEM roles will become cool again too and the amount of women in STEM roles will increase.

But maybe the problem lies in the varied upbringings each gender receives as children. While boys are encouraged to build and create, girls are left to play with dolls, as this comic demonstrates.

Gender flexibility

There have been efforts made to stop categorising toys as only suitable for girls or boys in retail from organisations such as Let Toys Be Toys. However throughout a woman’s lifetime, retail still suggests that technology is not for them by creating new versions of gadgets with a “pink it and shrink it” attitude to make it ‘suitable’ for women – like the original model wasn’t. Efforts such as Lady Geek are campaigning to stop this too.

It’s good to see that there are some cool initiatives underway to support females getting into STEM roles today. Rails Girls run events all over the world to give females the tools to understand technology and give them community and inspiration to make it happen and Girl Develop It exists to provide affordable and accessible programmes to women who want to learn software development through mentorship and hands-on instruction.

Hopefully the way in which society treats women in STEM roles will change and future generations will have more opportunities to explore the industry. However, if you’re a 21st century woman reading this now, don’t let society’s norms stop you from choosing a STEM role.

Note: Although women in STEM has been the overall topic of this post, STEM roles lack diversity as a whole, with a lack of women being one visible factor. STEM roles are fulfilled by mostly white, able-bodied heterosexual males in their late twenties. There is also a distinct lack of people of colour, people with disabilities, LGBTQ people and people over the age of 40. People like Ashe Dryden are fundraising to provide resources and access to programming to those that wouldn’t otherwise have it in order to increase diversity within the industry.

Why do you think there are so few women in STEM roles? Let us know in the comments below.

Photo: GrrlScientist / Flickr

Aysh BanayshWhy are there so few women in STEM roles?

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