Women and STEM
“This is a good school for girls!”, “Don’t waste your time, it's no job for a girl!”, “Great work, who helped you?”.
These are just some of the phrases that girls hear on a daily basis and that help to fuel gender inequality (or the gender gap) in the world of education and work. This social and economic problem affects every country in the world and, according to the World Economic Forum, it will take us over 100 years to close the gender gap.
Gender inequality continues to be fuelled today by prejudices and stereotypes that limit girls’ choices in educational settings, pushing them towards “studies considered suitable for women” or even to give up their education completely in order to dedicate themselves to family, first of all, and then work, which rarely falls in the field of STEM. What is STEM? It stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, scientific disciplines that provide the skills increasingly in demand in today's labour market; a market where woman, however, have little scope for growth and job satisfaction.
The enduring gender gap in the field of science and technology (among others) represents one of the biggest obstacles to change and global economic and social development, so much so that the United Nations made the need to close the gap one of its sustainable development goals in line with the 2030 Agenda; Sustainable Development Goal number 5 aims to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls in terms of perception of skills, awareness and self-esteem. There is still a long way to go, and the new difficulties posed by the Covid-19 pandemic have highlighted once again how the path is strewn with obstacles!
Getting girls interested in coding and STEM
What can be done to close this gap? For sure, we can try to overcome all the psychological barriers that are the product of preconceived ideas and prejudices against women in the scientific arena and in STEM, perhaps by encouraging girls from a young age to take part in science and technology workshops (coding, robotics, web design, etc.) or in STEM competitions and tournaments. The benefits are legion: from hands-on learning and teamwork, to growing and helping each other. Here are some ideas to put into practise immediately:
- Girls can find the best way to tell their own story and express themselves, practising digital storytelling by programming virtual characters (for example, coding with Scratch or other programs), or by creating a podcast or short videos (audio-video editing).
- Creating their own website or blog from scratch (whether informative, popular interest or recreational, etc.) helps to practise basic and advanced digital skills and raises young women's awareness of the importance of commitment and endeavour in the world of work.
- Having fun building and programming robots to carry out practical tasks helps young female students to have faith in science and technology, encouraging them to pursue their education in STEM, preparing them for the careers of the future.
This kind of activity can help to support gender equality in the science and technology sectors and to motivate young women to enter the labour market.
Some vitally important inventions we owe to women
If we feel discouraged by gender inequality, we can always take heart and draw inspiration from the many positive models out there. We wrongly tend to think of the field of inventions and patents as the preserve of men, but we should never forget that many groundbreaking technological inventions that revolutionised so many employment sectors, and people’s everyday lives, were made by women. It is therefore worth remembering not only their great contribution to scientific progress, but the enduring, inspiring example they set for girls who aspire to follow in their footsteps with their studies and work. Here are a few examples of names and inventions from an era before there was any talk of women and STEM:
- The dishwasher – 1886 – Josephine Cochrane
- Windscreen wipers – 1903 – Mary Anderson
- Stem cell isolation – 1991 – Ann Tsukamoto
- Solar-powered technology for the home – 1940 – Maria Telkes
- COBOL computer language – 1950s – Grace Murray Hopper
- Kevlar – 1966 – Stephanie Kwolek
There are also numerous illustrious figures, like Rita Levi-Montalcini, neurologist, scholar and senator for life of the Italian Republic, awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1986; Margherita Hack, Italian astrophysicist, scholar, scientific disseminator and activist; Fabiola Gianotti, current Director-General at CERN in Geneva. But also Maria Montessori, Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin, Hedy Lamarr, Ada Lovelace, Lise Meitner, Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin and countless others.
Well done to these remarkable women! Now it is our girls’ turn!