Are you ready to be (or not to be) a woman in STEM?

picture of a woman working

A science woman’s journey in IT and the ongoing challenges for women in STEM areas

Did you know that the United Nations estimated in 2022 that women make up 49.6% of the total population on planet Earth?

And did you know that on February 11, the International Day of Women and Girls in Science is celebrated? And if so, why does this day exist?

I’m going to ask you to think about 3 great scientists in history in 20 seconds… When time passes, you can scroll.

Can I try and guess which scientists did you remember? Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilei, Alan Turing? Perhaps Louis Pasteur or Thomas Edison? Did I get any right?

Or did any of the scientists below pop into your head?

picture of Woman scientists
Pictures from Wikimedia. Left to right: Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958), Chemistry. Ada Lovelace (1815–1852), Math and World first woman programmer. Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-), Entomology. Émilie du Châtelet (1706-1749), Physic and Math.

No? If yes, great, because the list goes on! There are many women who have marked the history of Science and Technology. Isn’t this amazing?

However, the world as we know it has found a way to conceal woman’s contribution to the STEM fields throughout history, always putting them to the test and forcing them to challenge social stereotypes. Disclaimer: This article aims to really explore the complexity and progress that has been made so far on gender equality in this field of knowledge. It’s about society itself and not about any specific company.

How did history begin?

We live in days where inclusion is a watchword, however, has it always been like this?

Why is the number of women in STEM lower than the number of men? Is it just because of preferences? The truth is no. Since the beginnings of science, women have always faced many more obstacles to be successful in any career. Social restrictions, lack of access to education and gender discrimination, have always been the main reasons that have prevented women from succeeding in senior positions.

In my opinion, it’s quite curious that we see lots of women working twice as hard to achieve the same as a man, but there’s still the stigma that it’s the woman’s place to take care of the house and the family. There are still many inequalities, especially regarding leadership positions, salary differences and the lack of recognition for academic contributions.

And speaking of numbers and remuneration, we don’t need to go further than 2010 to realise that in Portugal, on average, men received 17.9% more than women for the same roles.The good news is that this value has been decreasing, and now we are talking about 13.1%.

The truth is that it has improved, but does this percentage still makes sense?

My (not that impressive but real) story

Why am I writing this article? First, because I’m a proud woman! Then, because I believe we should all be part of change, and finally because I think we should talk more openly about these subjects so we can have a real vision of things. And of course, I like to think and write about these things!

Looking back, when I was a Cellular and Molecular Biology student, I was always surrounded by girls like me, perhaps in a ratio of 10 boys to 20 girls in the class, which made everything easier. Interestingly, most teachers were male.

When I got out to the business world and started to work, I immediately felted the weight of the sexist country we live in. I was experiencing firsthand the inequality in salary, promotions, consideration, etc. However, the weight of responsibility was always greater!

Only recently, eleven years later, I see that things are starting to evolve, mentalities are starting to change, and there is more and more equity (yes, because equality is not a term that applies).

STEM Women in the IT field

Any quick internet search on this subject returns a simple answer: there are many challenges and there is still a great need to address issues of gender equality. To my view, it’s urgent to acknowledge those issues and take action, as it’s the only way to promote the full potential of diverse talent and foster innovation and progress in STEM areas. To my view, I see it this way:

Underrepresentation: The imbalance is evident from education to leadership positions. There’s a disproportionate lack of female representation, hindering gender equity and diversity in work environments within these domains.

Cultural stereotypes: There is still a strong tendency to think that this area is a masculine area. This stereotype creates a mis concept to young generations who are influenced when choosing this career, and later in the way performance evaluations and promotions are carried out.

Salary differences: Even when occupying similar positions, women generally receive lower salaries than their male counterparts in these working fields. These disparities reflect the ongoing challenges in achieving equitable compensation within these professions.

Work environment: There are still many places where the work environment is not inclusive for women. Gender biases and discriminatory practices are mentally harmful and undermine the realization of a truly diverse and equitable workplace.

Lack of role models: Because there are few women in leadership positions in these areas, it can lead to a lack of desire and aspiration from other women that even might have the potential and aptitude to these kinds of working positions.

How can we make a difference?

There are two fundamental approaches to minimize inequality:

Awareness and education of new generations: The differences observed often begin with education. More training is necessary in order to demonstrate that nowadays, it makes no sense for someone to have different rights due to their gender, after all, the duties and responsibilities are the same.

In schools, it is very important to start creating awareness to these differences from an early age, but also promoting initiatives that encourage everyone to be interested in STEM areas. It is important to demystify these topics and educate the new generations. One way is to transform the education methods more practical, allowing everyone to contact the various areas of science in a dynamic way, for example, in experimental science classes or workshops.

IT companies can also be part of this change by creating academies for everybody, regardless their gender, that has the interest and capability to join. Polarising is doing a great job at this!

Diversity and inclusion initiatives: As adults, we have more difficulty to change our ideas, and sometimes, even accepting difference. We are afraid of what others might think. It is important that more and more organisations are aware of the need of diversity and inclusion. One path may be through implementing policies and programs to promote more equitable work environments. Leadership positions must be occupied by those who prove their worth and trained to manage everyone equally based on performance and delivery, and there should be a “Zero Discrimination Policy” to not use any of the following as evaluation criteria: gender, religion, or origin.

How is it to be a STEM woman at Polarising?

Polarising is doing a great job in diversity and inclusion! Did you know that about 24% of our employees are women? It’s really a good number in this type of companies, since some years ago even 1% was kind of utopic!

The company has a working policy that allows employees to feel safe and at home. Here we have female leaders, but most important, everybody is treated equally. Even regarding salaries, Polarising’s evaluation system values our performance (hard skills and soft skills), and it really doesn’t matter your gender.

That’s why in my brief story I said this was the beginning of a new era: It’s good to finally find a place where my gender (or other personal stuff) doesn’t delay my career.

So… to be or not to be a technological and scientific woman?

Awareness about these topics is growing every day and many efforts are already being done to make the working world, including IT, more inclusive.

There shouldn’t even exist any hesitation in wanting to be what you want to be! Even if the reality still is that there should be more and more possibilities for women to explore their potential.

The path to gender equality in these areas needs continuous efforts, collaboration, and commitment. It is an ongoing challenge that requires companies, teachers, and professionals to be onboard. And from all areas, to ensure that opportunities are equally distributed among everyone.

This article aims to do just that, to encourage reflection on the barriers that exist and inspire actions that lead us towards a future where opportunities are equal for everyone, regardless of gender.

Are we prepared? More than yesterday, less than tomorrow: “The path is made step by step!”

Profiel auteur