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IWD 2024: Inspiring more women in technology - why representation is key
Fri, 8th Mar 2024

Despite huge strides having been made when it comes to diversity, inclusivity and gender equality, discrimination, damaging stereotypes and a lack of representation sadly still exist. Any one of these factors can have a profound impact on a person’s education, potentially causing them to disengage with certain subjects - often without even realising.

This is arguably most prevalent in STEM subjects. However, with the UK aiming to be the first ‘quantum ready economy’, with businesses and wider society poised to use and extract value from quantum technologies by 2023, I’d argue that we need to be doing more to inspire the next generation of female scientists and remove these barriers.

Harnessing a passion for science and technology

Personally, I’ve always been interested in cutting-edge technologies and the power of innovation in shaping our world. In my current role as Quantum Innovation Sector Lead at NQCC, I lead the development of our sectoral innovation strategy.

This strategy will facilitate the discovery of quantum computing use cases across various sectors such as healthcare, pharmaceuticals, space, financial services, climate and energy. This, in turn, helps us spearhead the development of societal and industrial applications and investigate potential disruptive solutions unveiled by quantum to solve some of the world’s biggest challenges.

However, to bring this vision to life, a critical element our wider team tackles is addressing the current STEM skill shortages and spearheading initiatives to develop a quantum-aware workforce that can bring about this change.

While the barrier to young people - especially girls - engaging with STEM subjects is starting to lower, more can definitely still be done.

For example, I’ve noticed that the messaging women receive throughout their education can be very different from the messaging men receive. Many women want to progress from their undergraduate studies to focus on a STEM subject for their PhD, but this doesn’t translate into reality.

Research in this area highlights various factors, ranging from targeted negative messaging, which is deeply ingrained to various degrees across our society in general and specifically in industries, to a lack of representation within certain academic fields. If you showed most people a picture of Albert Einstein, they would instantly recognise him because every textbook and every TV show has shown us his picture. However, Emmy Noether, the ‘mother of modern algebra’, is rarely pictured (or even mentioned!). For many years, I thought “Noether” was a man, which not only showcased my own internal biases but can also be a case study for how “gender” is mentioned in classrooms.

Similarly, in some schools you still find that the STEM subjects are taught using textbooks. For most people, text-heavy discussions are off-putting - especially if the topic is complex. Visualising something taking place or having it explained like a story will really capture a young person’s imagination as they can see themselves in the role. Youtube and tools, such as the Access Education GCSEPod learning and video content, are proving to have an immensely positive impact here.

Hands-on experience is also key. Just because a student might find the exam structures of STEM subjects challenging or the classroom environment uninspiring doesn’t mean they are a bad student.

Schools need to be adaptable to ensure they achieve their full potential. This might involve inviting inspirational speakers into the classroom or getting involved in wider initiatives, such as Soapbox Science.

Breaking down barriers

From my experience, I’ve heard women being asked, “oh really? You’re really a physicist!” “are you sure you can handle both maths and physics?” “oh, it will be tough as a researcher – especially if you consider that in the future you might want to have a family and kids?”. This sort of messaging, though not consciously malicious per se, can be hugely demotivating and with issues like the rising cost of childcare always in the mainstream media, it’s easy to see why the next generation of women scientists might be deterred from exploring their options.

In the most extreme cases, generations of unconscious workplace discrimination and a lack of nuanced understanding of how to be intersectional in our diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) strategies have translated into what we call a “leaky pipeline”, with fewer women getting promoted to decision-making positions.

This has led us to an unfortunate situation where we have systematically excluded more than 50% of our human resources from the workforce - which is terrible since there is a major need for diversity in innovation and ‘all hands-on deck’ to steer us through our upcoming global challenges. It’s time for change.

As the 2034-2024 House of Commons Committee Report points out, it is sad that what held true in 2013-2014 still holds true today:

“It is astonishing that despite clear imperatives and multiple initiatives to improve diversity in STEM, women still remain under-represented at senior levels across every discipline [ … ] Emphasis is often placed on inspiring young girls to choose science, which is commendable, but such efforts are wasted if women are subsequently disproportionately disadvantaged in scientific careers compared to men.”

A quick scan of research journals would show that there is no lack of evidence-based research in this area; the challenge lies in its correct implementation and securing societal buy-in, especially keeping in mind that such challenges are systemic and intersectional. Any approach to implementing them in a vacuum would inadvertently fail.

To any young person considering a career in STEM, I would say, “do it - no matter your background and how unprepared you might feel!”. You don’t have to get perfect grades, and you don’t have to be great at everything, nor do you have to figure out your exact “niche” to work in very early on - just follow your passion for exploring the topics you love the most at the moment. Build strong fundamentals, be open to new opportunities, and you are sure to uncover beautiful things along your quest. It would also be useful for young people to know that “successful people” also battle personal challenges such as depression and fail quite often.

To teachers, parents and educators, I would advise shifting focus to the reduction of barriers for women from one which focuses solely on encouragement. Ensuring boys and men are also exposed to women role models early on in a variety of settings and inclusive, non-gender-harming messaging is the other side of the same coin and must go hand in hand.

To businesses and organisations looking to implement effective and evidence-based strategies to this effect, my advice is to avoid reinventing the wheel and hire EDI researchers and experts with the knowledge, expertise and experience required to effect such changes and provide them with the appropriate budget and executive power necessary to implement streamlined policies which are easily executable and bring about systemic changes while supporting under-represented and vulnerable demographics.

I don’t think it would be inappropriate to say that in the face of our looming global challenges, our very survival might depend on it!