Introducing our women in STEM series

A career in STEM can be rewarding, exciting and lucrative, so why is the percentage of women in the field still so low?

When contemplating the STEM industries in terms of gender balance, the numbers leave a lot to be desired. According to the most recent figures, published by the Wise campaign, women currently make up only 24 per cent of the core-STEM workforce in the UK, although they constitute nearly half of the whole labour market. But times are changing - as is demonstrated by the women featured in this series.

We interviewed scientists, technologists and engineers from a range of industries, backgrounds, ages and experience levels, to explore what work life is really like for women in STEM today. Although every story is unique, many of our interviewees had gone through similar experiences. For several of them, an early interest in STEM came in the form of manual play - be that with Lego, spare parts or old computers. Some found a love of technology through computer games or literature. 

Many of the women in this series were pursuing other interests or careers entirely before enthusiasm for a STEM subject gripped them, while others knew early on that this was the path for them. 

Another common element of their stories can be seen as a powerful reason for optimism. Although almost all have encountered sexism throughout their careers, the majority have stated that they feel respected for their skills and ability, with their gender viewed as largely irrelevant. So what other assumptions and barriers are holding young women back from fruitful STEM careers? Before diving into our individual interviews, we asked five women their opinions. 

Sara Daqiq, software engineer at Okta and mentor at Girls Who Code

Mel Tsiaprazis, EVP and group chief operating officer of Crown Agents Bank

Dr Cat Kelly, director of clinical informatics and services at med-tech company Perspectum

Jutta Horstmann, Chief operating officer at eyeo

Dr Siobhan Gardiner, climate change and environment lead at Deloitte Ventures

Q: What are some of the most common misconceptions about being a woman working in STEM?

SD: “The biggest misconception is still that women are not naturally inclined to like STEM subjects, or that it is unconventional, in some way, to be both a woman and be in software. The greatest assets I have as a software engineer are my problem-solving skills and curiosity. These are not skills that can be defined or influenced by my gender. There’s still a lot of work to be done to change people’s mindsets.”

MT: “The UN has categorically acknowledged that entrenched gender stereotypes and gender bias are driving girls and women away from pursuing careers in science-related fields. One of the biggest misconceptions is women are naturally more interested in caregiving occupations (e.g. teaching and social work).

A personal misconception that was held by my then 6-year-old daughter is that girls haven’t achieved as much as men in our history. To every girl out there: know that women have been trailblazing in the STEM space for centuries. Women working in STEM is often seen as a new phenomenon - this couldn’t be further from the truth.”

CK: “That if you have kids, you are not serious about your career. I think this is becoming far less common, but ten years ago when I was having my children, I received a lot of comments, including from people in a managerial position, that having a second child indicated a lack of commitment to my field. Apart from it being illegal to discriminate on a gender basis, I try to be as supportive as possible of my team’s work life balance and promote their career progression within the company - basically, how I would like to be treated! I find that people often come back from maternity leave with laser focus, as they have fewer hours in the day to get stuff done.”

JH: “That you are only interested in the “softer” parts, like user interface or people management - and not into networks, hardware, shell scripts and coding all night. Also, that you need to copy toxic male behavior to be successful and that you are not capable of analytical thinking and reasoning.”

SG: People often have preconceived ideas of what scientists look like. I’ve been told that I “don’t look like a scientist”, have been referred to as a “lady-scientist” and even as “Dr. Gardiner’s assistant” on several occasions throughout my career. Even so, I have noticed a positive shift in recent years in the industry with more women acknowledged for the scientific contribution they make, and moving up into senior leadership positions. Many people may also consider that a career in science is just about being in a laboratory. While this is hugely important, collaborating with businesses, industries and wider society to communicate results and innovate more broadly is integral as well.”

Q: What are some concrete things which could be done to get more women into STEM?

SD: “The most important thing is providing a rounded education and awareness of STEM to young women, especially in disadvantaged communities. The biggest issue is that many women are not taught about careers in STEM. Early pathways, which allow women to learn about STEM subjects, and an understanding of what a career in such a fulfilling field is like, is key. It is important to know that STEM is very diverse and the student does not have to code, be in the lab or solve mathematical equations all day. STEM can be observing the Fibonacci sequence in a flower.”

MT: “According to UNESCO, there are an estimated 130 million girls aged 6 to 17 out of school. It is imperative that emerging markets tackle educational access irrespective of gender, race or financial position. This should be followed by having governments make STEM education part of the core curriculum. Having larger organisations create special programmes for girls in science, maths, engineering or technology that foster early experience in high schools and universities is critical and will lead the way for future opportunities. Combined with a larger number of internships (even virtual internships) to provide ease of access or return-to-work programmes in this area, we’ll start to see real progress.”

CK: “I think getting women into STEM careers is not the hard part anymore, it’s keeping them there! However, I think that having women in senior positions makes a huge difference, as it shows young women that STEM is a real opportunity for them. There is a huge breadth of careers in STEM that people might not initially think of - if you like engaging with customers, perhaps medical sales or marketing is your thing, or if you are creative and like working as a team, there’s product management and design. It isn’t just pipetting (though that can be fun too!) For me, it is having the opportunity to make a difference to people’s lives. I sleep well at night.”

JH: “We will only be able to really change things if society changes as a whole. As long as kids see stereotypical depictions of female vs. male capabilities everywhere - in their books, movies and TV series, and ads - they will believe that this is reality and adapt their own dreams to it. On top of that, we see a chicken-and-egg problem: as long as we lack female role models, it remains hard for young women to envisage themselves in a technical role. So we need to change how we educate kids and we need to provide role models.”

SG: “For organisations of all sizes, from start-ups to international corporations, addressing the gender pay gap and career progression challenges that women face in the workplace will be crucial to building diversity of leadership and an inclusive work culture. Mentoring programmes that connect women in STEM at all levels, from school outreach to early and late-career support, can create a network for people in the industry to share lessons and offer guidance. Through these schemes, women can grow their networks at every stage of their career, and STEM industries can retain top talent.”

Read our interviewees’ own stories about being a woman in STEM here.