Mind the Gap: Women in STEMM

Women in STEMM

The STEMM gap is the employment disparity in the science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine fields between men and women. There is also a racial imbalance in STEMM that aligns with the majority-minority challenges in many cultures. So why focus on the STEMM gap for women? Savannah Maziya is the Executive Chairperson of The Bunengi Group, an international mining, infrastructure, agriculture and investment corporation headquartered in South Africa. “So, I always talk about the one culture that the world shares. There’s American culture and English, Jamaican and Indian, whatever. But the one culture we all share is discrimination against women and always thinking that women are a lesser-than.”

Maziya points out the irony. “Women can be pregnant and give birth to people, bring them into the world, raise a full human being. But if you just say, ‘operate this heavy machinery,’ it’s ‘oh no, they can’t do that!’ For some reason, it seems difficult to see women operating in various commercial operations, especially STEMM-related ones.”

Quoting global figures from 2016, Paola Scarpa, Director of Client Solutions, Data & Insights at Google Italy says, “We start off having just 35% women in STEMM at university. We move to 25% women in the STEMM workforce. Then 14% women in STEMM management roles and finally just 9% as a STEMM executive and CEO.”

The rates of female participation in STEMM vary country to country. For example, according to Michelle Gallaher, CEO of the ASX-listed AI company Opyl and co-founder and co-chair of Women in STEMM Australia, “The representation of women is the lowest around IT and physics, where we’re seeing less than a 15% representation, through to biological sciences and healthcare in which we’re seeing equity, we’re seeing 50/50. In Australia, we’ve only got 17% of professors in our academic institutions that are women. So there’s a real significant disadvantage. And the greatest gap is seen at the most senior levels of the STEMM sector in Australia.”

Another example is India, with its own striking figures regarding women in STEMM. Geetha Kannan is the founder and CEO of Wequity and a pioneer for the Women in IT movement in India. She explains, “India is number one in terms of female STEMM graduates, at a high level of 43%. However we are 19th in terms of employing them, this is where the issue of gender equity starts. And if you take medicine alone, 60% of students in medical colleges are women currently in India, but only 20% of them take up professional posts.”

The women who do enter STEMM professions are less likely to remain, or to advance. “We see a significant divergence and we call it the scissors graph, when we see women’s careers diverge from men’s, Gallaher says. “It’s about mid-career and it usually coincides around the building of families. And in STEMM, those women who continue to accelerate their careers still don’t accelerate to the same level as men. We’re seeing quite a significant gap in terms of salary as well. In STEMM in Australia at the moment, it’s about a 22.5% gap. And the higher up you go, the bigger the gap.”

Diversity is a business imperative and therefore the STEMM gap comes at a steep cost for economies and organizations, as well as the women left behind.


As digital transformation and the adoption of tech increasingly influence which companies thrive, even survive, what’s the impact of the STEMM gap? According to Gallaher, Kannan, Maziya and Scarpa, the loss can be measured in innovation, market share and the pool of top talent.

From Kannan’s perspective, “We are losing a lot of vital talent because these women have studied, but they're not contributing in any way with what they've studied. This is one aspect, the talent pool is lost. The second aspect is that the financial performance of companies significantly improves when there's diversity in the company, enough research is out there from McKinsey and credible research entities on this. The third key point is that you are developing for a market that is 50% men and 50% women. So if your market is not reflected in your workforce, how good can your products be?”

For example, Maziya says, “Consider how cars are built. Cars are really built one-size-fits-all. Have you ever seen a place for a handbag in a car? No, it's called the passenger seat.” She adds, “It may be a lot of things that seem unimportant, but actually are quite important. And some are life-threatening. This shows that a lot of things are not built with women in mind and yet they form a large component of the user group. If more women were involved in the design process such things would be considered in all products.”

Maziya describes the experience of a researcher who wanted to study bowel cancer in African American women. “They were just told, ‘that market is just not big enough.’ Well that may be so in the United States, but there’s a whole host of other people of color outside the United States. Hello, 500 Million women in Africa, for example. There’s the UK, there’s the Caribbean. But it becomes very difficult to make a career stand, unless you’re really senior enough and say, look, I really want to do this. And then women leave the commercial environment because they just don’t want to fight those battles anymore. We need to have environments that are accepting of diversity. We are seeing a lot of focus on diversity now. This is very encouraging and needs to be supported so that it is sustainable.”

Kannan describes “listening to stories of people at work, talking about what they're going through and how the prejudices at work are really pulling them back rather than advancing them, even resulting in some of them saying enough is enough, we are going to quit.” She says, “So I decided from that time onwards that I'd continue to be associated in the space of advancing women in technology.”

According to the 2019 McKinsey Global Institute report “The Future of Women at Work: Transitions in the Age of Automation” women are more likely to study natural sciences than applied sciences and have a low participation rate in tech jobs. “Fewer than 20 percent of tech workers are female in many mature economies. Only 1.4 percent of female workers have jobs developing, maintaining, or operating ICT systems, compared with 5.5 percent of male workers, according to the OECD.”

Why is this gap relevant? Scarpa explains, “We are going in a direction where everything will be digital. So even if you are a historian, a painter, or whatever, there will be digital in the background. You need some technical skills to be able to survive in this environment. The reason we need to provide women the same opportunity that we provide to men is because otherwise, we will only have products and messages written by men.”

Kannan’s assessment is definitive. “The result of the STEMM gap is, we are losing.”


The many barriers to women in STEMM can be boiled down to bias, access and systems.

The bias starts early. Scarpa cites a Microsoft study which indicated that girls decide what kind of roles they want in the future when they are about 12 years old. “So who are the big influencers? It is the parents and the teachers. Because when you are 11, 12 years old, these are the people around you. So the first step is really to help the family to resolve their unconscious bias.”

Addressing STEMM education, Maziya says, “We still live with certain stereotypes. If there is an engineering class, whether it’s a grammar school or middle school or even high school, girls tend to be motivated to take on what are referred to as the softer classes, like the arts and such. We don’t see anything wrong with that, but my position and that of a lot of people who are involved in advocating for STEMM is that there should be an even split in the numbers from the beginning in all areas of study and careers.”

The high number of women in India graduating with STEMM degrees is especially remarkable given the cultural barriers they face. Kannan explains, “In India, there is a lack of choice for even being born, based on the reality of female infanticide. Then you may not have a choice of being educated because your brother gets preference over you. Then of course when you graduate from college, family factors really put a lot of pressure on women to quit the workforce.”

Scarpa notes that one key to retaining and promoting women is to provide workplace flexibility for everyone, not just women: “what we try to promote in Google, is really to work by objectives and not time.” What does that look like at Google? Scarpa says, “I personally don’t care if my people are working during the day, during the night, three hours, four hours, if they provide the results, I’m fine.”

For women entrepreneurs in STEMM, flexibility in workplaces can’t help them. Their challenge is funding. Gallaher says, “The area that I’m most interested in is the number of STEMM qualified women who are in entrepreneurship. At the moment, it’s about 2%.”

Gallaher’s observations extend to the U.S. as well. “Consider that, in 2018, all-male founding teams received 85 percent of total venture capital investment in the United States, while all-women teams received just 2 percent, and gender-neutral teams just 13 percent.” (McKinsey)

“It’s appalling,” Gallaher says. To address the inequity Gallaher is involved in a global network of women entrepreneurs. “It’s people like me sharing experiences with other women who want to walk the path as well, but it’s also me opening up my professional networks. This is around mentorship, sponsorship and creating those professional networks around women to help them learn and help them accelerate and help them to find what they need, whether it’s funding or whether it’s technology or whether it’s talent. But to break down those barriers for women who are giving their all to get a business up and running and to get technology out there and commercialized.”

Kannan reflects, “So many thousands of years of history, we are battling against patriarchy. We are battling against the prevailing stereotypes on gender and schema that is like a mindset. Then there are parental and community attitudes specific to India, which influence a girl's choice of further studies, or whether or not she takes up a career, and if she does, whether she gets to stay and progress her career.”

Breaking barriers could begin with simply changing the language that we use. Kannan points to the efforts of a small, U.S.-based financial services company. “It has a technology center here in India, and they really looked at all the words that they put out in terms of social media, the words that their leaders say, any advertisements they do, any job descriptions that they've generated. They looked at every word, and asked ‘how can we make each word gender agnostic?’ And they gained an interesting insight in terms of how women and men react differently to the words that are used.” The outcome, Kannan says, is profound. “They found a significant difference in the number of female applicants that responded to a specific ad.

It's just a powerful example of how just words can change the mindset of people.”

Referring to the projected skills gap in Europe, Scarpa says, “We know there will be some million new jobs they will not be able to fill due to a lack of STEMM skills. So we need to close the gap to have an additional workforce, both men and women, to work on these new opportunities.” She says, “Everything will be in the cloud. Everything will need data and big data analysis to make forecasts, to understand the customer better, to decide what the future will be.”

Corrective action may need to take the form of public policy. Kannan explains, “In January 2020 the Indian government said that there should be affirmative action, and that at least at top schools in India, about 20% of seats will be specifically set aside for female graduates.”

Maziya agrees that public policy helps. “Until you’ve got a policy, companies or organizations and even individuals will not look at something as being serious, but once there’s a policy that a government has put aside, that has some kind of carrot and stick, people pay attention.”

Gallaher points out that among women there are additional barriers to STEMM. “Women in STEMM, particularly in Australia, are typically women from privilege. We’ve had the best education and our families have valued education and can see that education is freedom for women. But when you look at the diversity of those women in leadership in STEMM, it’s very white and it’s very privileged and there’s a certain age and background here.”

Gallaher believes, “The next step for us to walk deeper towards real equity is to understand how women like me can really change our language and become better allies. This, right now, is one of the most uncomfortable and the most disruptive things happening in STEMM. There’s that personal responsibility we all have. For people like me, who are in a position of influence and leadership, it is about checking that it’s not just about more women at the table. It’s about more diversity of those women who are at the table.”

Maziya doesn’t let companies off the hook. “The barriers are that a lot of these matters are institutionalized. It may not be said out loud that I don't want women in STEMM, I don't want women in these careers or these classes, but just by action, it becomes quite clear that that is the position. With movements such as #MeToo, pay parity and looking at getting more women on boards and women in C-suites, we're starting to see a turn, but we certainly need to have more companies coming out and standing their ground on that. When investors such as pension funds, sovereign funds, etc. start to insist that companies should have women representation at all levels of corporations including senior management, C-suites and boards, that will definitely shift the needle. You can see it happening with fossil fuels—investors are telling companies that they will not invest in them if they operate in fossil fuels and that has driven the change. The participation of women, including them being paid equally, requires these sorts of positions from these kinds of market participants.”

“When a curious mind is given resources and opportunities to learn, research, test, teach and invent, the possibilities are limitless. A woman builds solar lanterns that bring light to her Guatemalan town. Girls code a drone controlled by SMS messaging that will dispense medicine in rural areas. A woman pharmaceutical chemist wins the Nobel Prize for research on anti-malarial compounds that improve the health of millions. Women and girls in STEMM are creators, entrepreneurs, innovators and leaders. They’re tackling some of the most pressing global challenges head-on, but, across the field, their participation remains relatively low. Why?”

- UN Women, “Sticking Points in STEMM” February 7, 2019


“Female entrepreneurs who operate in male-dominated sectors are more likely to have had male role models when growing up. Championing successful women could encourage girls to envisage their working life differently, choosing entrepreneurship as a career, and moving away from common stereotypes on women’s professions.”

- (“Can role models encourage woman to step off the beaten path and become entrepreneurs?” OECD Gender Equality, March 2019)

The shortage of role models begins pre-career, according to Kannan. “When girls do enter colleges and universities, they don't have enough women as role models standing in front of them.” For example, she says, “I have a friend who teaches at a premier Indian school in Mumbai, and she deals with applied maths, a brilliant lady. She says sometimes when she is in the room, she's the only woman there. If in teachers, you don't have role models, the whole bias continues because you're actually suggesting women are not good enough even to be standing in front of a group of students. It starts from there.”

Scarpa agrees that role models are crucial. “When I was a young engineer, unfortunately, there was nobody helping me. I learned by mistakes. I learned by myself, this is the reason why, even if I don’t have a lot of time, I try to have three or four young mentees, young women engineers, trying to help them, to say, ‘this is what can happen in your career. This is what can happen after maternity,’ just to explain what it’s really like.”

What is the difference between mentorship and sponsorship? Scarpa explains that a mentor can share his or her experience, whether from within or outside of the workplace, and a sponsor is someone actively engaged in promoting a person’s career. “The sponsor will fight for your promotion, for a new job, while the mentor is more somebody who will share with you their experience.”

A woman going it alone is not unusual, according to Maziya. “Women rarely have people who support their careers.” She explains that many careers are dependent on an internal champion. “They sponsor you wherever there’s an audience to do so, and talk you up in any environment. It becomes really difficult when we don’t have those sponsors because those tend to come from golf and tend to come from old school buddies and that kind of stuff. And so it becomes very difficult for women to get the opportunities. It is important to find mentors and sponsors. Some of them will be men. We should never exclude them—they can be our biggest supports and cheerleaders.”

The solution? “You really need strong, defiant men to be able to take on mentoring and sponsoring women as an important exercise. That's where the gap really is. You know, if nothing else, COVID should have taught us that we are all equal. When a pandemic strikes, it doesn’t discriminate. It infects and affects everyone. We are in it together and therefore we need to work together for the greater good. Diversity is strength and the world is better when we recognize, appreciate and utilize our differences. The different ingredients make for a better meal,” Maziya says.

Gallaher sits on the board of a medical startup accelerator called The Actuator which sponsors competitions for funding. Gallaher describes one such startup that won funding. “It was a hundred percent female-led company. That’s really rare. And so there were engineers, there were chemists, there were designers. So in this cohort of women, they didn’t have a network. These awards and accelerators are usually dominated by men, so this is a really important message to men: look what talent is there. So even if these businesses don’t survive, the talent is being seen and the ideas are being heard.” She says, “It builds a much better ecosystem.”

Scarpa insists that sometimes women need to be their own advocates. “Why should it be the case like in the Disney story, when you have the prince coming to you, putting the crown on your head and saying, I will marry you? This is not what should happen.” Instead, Scarpa tells women, “Be conscious about your value.” She describes a Google project called “I am remarkable.” Scarpa explains, “This is a way for our people to really understand why you are relevant, and that you are good enough.” Employees are asked to think about and put in writing their unique accomplishments and qualities, to know their worth, and practice self-promotion. Scarpa says, “Every time you have doubts or you’re waiting for your manager to say, yes, you’re good enough, we are saying don’t wait for that. Look at your list. Be strong and ask for something if it’s not coming to you.” This advice is especially important for women, she says. “It will be a man for sure that will ask. Loudly.”

The scarcity of women role models, mentors and sponsors in STEMM can reinforce a cycle of underrepresentation. Maziya explains, “Most times, you stick to a career because there are people like you, who can promote you and work with you, but when you don’t see people like you and the environment is not necessarily outwardly hostile, but certainly not as nurturing as it should be, a lot of people then drop off. And so we lose them. We don’t have them in the industry as much as we should, and we need to have them at all stations of the career profile—from the entrance to middle management to senior management, to boards, and everywhere in between.”



"So the future in STEMM is woman because in order to be successful in a digitally normative environment, you need a lot of soft skills that are very woman-related: empathy, active listening, team attitude. So when we match the soft skills with the hard STEMM skills, you have a fantastic, powerful new group of women that can make the change in society. Women will succeed because they already have the soft skills and they will match them with these hard skills in a digital world." - Paolo Scarpa


“It’s going to disrupt the current women who are leading in STEMM, and it’s going to disrupt the younger women in STEMM. It’s going to disrupt the men. It’s going to disrupt organizations and governments and funding models and policies. But I think we have to have the courage to disrupt. And I think we have to have the courage to be uncomfortable in this. I want to say to young women who are just starting out their careers in STEMM to have courage and be ready for the discomfort!” - Michelle Gallaher


“The innovation and the products that come out of having more and more women in STEMM is becoming limitless, and removing restrictions, barriers and unconscious bias gives women a limitless career to pursue. Limitless also means that their work is not restricted by any kind of boundaries so that their work can become really and truly limitless.” - Geetha Kannan


"Like all good things, we need to work for it, we need to support each other for it, from schools all the way to governments and policy makers. I liken the issue to trying to run a marathon when you have two fully functional legs, but you tied one behind your back. Why? Why wouldn’t you use all the resources given to you to be able to run this race? When we start running with both our legs, when we understand that as women, we hold up half the sky, and that STEMM is the future, it’s going to be exciting for all parties, not just one gender. Because if the whole village is working together, we’re all richer for it.” - Savannah Maziya

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