WOMEN IN STEM: TACKLING THE PROBLEM OF FEMALE UNDERREPRESENTATION

10 Dec 2018

The STEM fields, which encompass science, engineering, technology and maths, have historically been male-dominated. Of course, this is not to say that women played no role in the progress of each discipline. Yet many of us have never heard of the women who took some of the greatest strides in STEM.

The reason for this is not that the advances made by women were unnoteworthy. Often, they were simply overlooked. But sometimes the sexism went further – and a man, often one we canonise, is given the credit for their work instead. 

Ada Lovelace was the only legitimate daughter of Lord Byron, the famous poet. Lovelace, like her father, had a unique way of looking at the world. And while her father’s brilliance was with words, she showed her genius in maths. 

A contemporary of Lovelace, Mary Somerville, a science writer and polymath, was one of the first two women to be nominated to join the Royal Astronomical Society. Somerville introduced Lovelace to a man called Charles Babbage in 1833. Babbage took a shine to Lovelace and invited her to see what he’d been working on – a prototype of a differential machine (a primitive computer) he called the ‘analytical engine.’ 

Lovelace was fascinated and Babbage encouraged her interest. He asked Ada to translate an article on Babbage's analytical engine, written in French by Italian engineer Luigi Federico Menabrea, for a Swiss journal. 

She did, but she also added her own notes – extensive ones, three times longer than the original piece. They included the first published description of a stepwise sequence of operations for solving particular mathematical problems – the first computer program. Yet when the piece was published, Lovelace went under her initials “A.A.L.” At the time, women did not publish in scientific journals.

A celebration – and a call to action

Despite Babbage being renowned for ‘inventing the computer,’ the first computer programmer fell into relative obscurity – until recently. Ada Lovelace Day, each 9 October, seeks to change this, and encourages the celebration of women in STEM today.  

While the barriers that persisted in Lovelace’s time are less severe today, women still remain hugely underrepresented in STEM fields. Despite constituting roughly half of the workforce, only 14% of STEM jobs are done by women. 

 “I think the biggest barrier isn’t that women and girls aren’t necessarily interested in STEM, but the fact that they aren’t aware of the career options it presents,” says Vanessa Quansah, a Senior Civil Structural Engineer at Lendlease UK. 

“There is also a large challenge around female confidence – women often don’t think they can go far enough in the industry. We need to make them more comfortable to go for senior roles.” 

After centuries of condescension and sexism, it’s no wonder some women wonder whether they can pursue a career in STEM. To reassure women that they can, Quansah thinks mentoring is essential. 

“It’s comforting to know that there are people that support you and want you to do well and are there to talk to when dealing with difficult projects where a much more experienced person can provide guidance,” says Quansah.  

And Quansah is not alone in thinking this could be a big part of the solution to the lack of women in STEM. 

In September 2018, Dr. Anne-Marie Imafidon spoke at a New Scientist Live event in London about the future of work in light of artificial intelligence.

Her meteoric rise as a STEM whiz began early. For starters, Dr. Imafidon aced her computing A-Level when she was just 11-years-old. Less than a decade later, she became one of the youngest students ever to receive a Master’s Degree in Mathematics and Computer Science from Oxford. 

Dr. Imafidon wanted to help mentor women interested in pursuing the same (often lucrative) fields – but on a large scale. So, she launched a project called the STEMettes. This non-profit organisation offers guidance, support and mentorship. These women are introduced to different STEM topics, and teams of professional nurture their interests and guide their careers plans. 

“For us, we’re trying to influence the girls’ – and young women’s – perspectives and awareness as to what their options would be in a STEM career. But also to boost their confidence in their own abilities to pursue one.”  

A recent boost worth mentioning here is Professor Donna Strickland who, in October 2018, became the third woman in history, and the first woman in 55 years to win the Nobel Prize for Physics.

A plan of action

Of course, celebrating these successes and promoting mentorship alone is not enough. At Lendlease, we have taken decisive action to address gender inequality within its organisation. 

“We start by ensuring that young graduate hires are 50/50, and they are actually more skewed to females than males at Lendlease,” says Lucy Homer, Lendlease’s Executive General Manager Design & Technical. 

Part of what Homer oversees is onsite engineering construction work. She runs a female networking group for the construction side of the business. This provides a dedicated place for women to share their stories of working onsite in a safe, encouraging environment. 

“We need to bring them through so that they don’t leave and are supported throughout their careers in the particular way that women need. The female psyche is just set up differently.” 

Women like Homer, Dr. Imafidon, Strickland and Quansah are all strong signs of progress. But the issue of female under-representation in STEM is complex, and solving it demands a multi-tiered strategy. 

Here’s what Lendlease is currently doing to bridge the STEM gap: 
  • Select STEM champions to go into schools and universities to advocate careers in construction and development

  • Set up mentoring schemes and leadership development programmes to reflect the distinct mindsets of the sexes and ensure that women are progressing to leadership roles and articulating their ideas with confidence and conviction

  • Ensure that office practices are fully realised in the outdoor environment (e.g. construction sites) by including males in the female oriented initiatives – bringing them up to speed on what’s expected, what’s unacceptable, and who to go to, anonymously, if they need help.

  • Make sure that there is a point of contact for women to escalate concerns and requirements, such as: ‘I think my ideas are being overlooked because I’m a woman’, ‘I feel like I’m being treated differently on-site because I’m a woman’

  • Look beyond construction-oriented degrees in the recruitment process to ensure the pool doesn’t reflect disproportionately male degree-intake

  • Introduce a range of benefits and policies including flexible ways of working, paid parental and partner leave, careers leave and other family benefits. 

  • Provide professional networks for women.

  • Work towards pay parity by undertaking annual pay equity reviews and having a clear action plan to address gender pay gaps.
This is what Lendlease has pledged to do, but much of it could be applied to any organisation.

To solve the lack of female representation in STEM will require similar action from many more employers over a substantial stretch of time. It may demand new ideas not yet conceived. 

But if Ada Lovelace can figure out how to get a 19th century ‘computer’ to solve maths problems, we can fix this, too.