Entering the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) field is a tremendously exciting prospect as it puts people at the forefront of discovery, invention, and innovation. However, traditional attitudes have barred women from being part of this dynamic industry. That means almost half of the world’s population has been underrepresented in these fields—and their talents untapped.
Aliza Sherman understands this all too well. As a new media entrepreneur, she knows much about women’s technology and business issues, having started the first woman-owned Internet company, Cybergrrl, Inc., in the early 90s, and subsequently a networking portal for women interested in technology called Webgrrls International. She shares her thoughts on the gender gap issue, and how we can encourage more women to pursue STEM careers.
Why don't we see more women joining the STEM industry?
The STEM industry can be difficult place for women to thrive. They have to work twice as hard to get noticed, and if they don’t speak up—loudly—they may not get heard. Sadly, this is not just prevalent in the technology industry, but in most industries as well.
Despite the challenges, working in technology can be rewarding and exciting. I encourage women to form their own companies or work in organisations with female- and minority-friendly cultures. They should also actively seek out mentors for support. One suggestion is to create their very own “board of advisors”, to navigate the complex terrain of being a woman in technology.
Why aren’t more girls picking up STEM subjects?
In general, societal attitudes towards women are still quite unfavourable, with many not being very accepting of women in STEM careers.
Take for example the gender dynamics in the STEM classroom. For instance, some teachers tend to acknowledge and encourage boys more than girls.
In addition, girls are not exposed to positive female role models in STEM. Instead, they are bombarded with negative anecdotes of the hostile work environment in the STEM field, the media portrayal of females as a decorative object, as well as the depiction of smart girls as ugly and unpopular. This lack of exposure, however, probably stems from a dearth of mentors.
Be it pursuing a STEM education or embarking on a STEM career, it is important for girls to have a mentor and supportive peers; without them, they can feel alienated and isolated. Parents should also go the extra mile to keep their daughters engaged in STEM, while staying vigilant about any negative influences or demoralising inner thoughts.
Why is the industry in need of more female voices?
Technology needs diversity, period. Studies have shown that having more females and introducing diversity to the STEM field give birth to better products and services.
Visibility and voice can also improve the representation of women in the media. When I ran Cybergrrl, I received a lot of international coverage for starting the first woman-owned Internet company.
I also received hundreds of emails weekly from girls and women, telling me it was inspiring to see someone like me, a writer with no background in technology, successfully carving out a career in that sector. This has gone to motivate girls to pick up STEM subjects in school and women to encourage their daughters to embrace technology and pursue STEM careers.
How can STEM companies incorporate gender diversity?
Companies should hire from a diverse pool of qualified candidates, either by casting a wider net or reaching out to your networks. Finding qualified female candidates is not impossible; if the company is not attracting any, it is vital to figure out why that is so. Just as importantly, women with the same responsibilities and qualifications as men should also be given an equal wage.
When I was in Cybergrrl, educators, and business and government leaders from around the world would asked me how they can engage more women effectively in their school or companies. However, most of them did not hire female teachers or elect women in senior management or leadership positions, and were not aware that doing so is actually crucial in promoting gender diversity.
Microsoft Digigirlz is a programme that lets high school girls learn about career opportunities in STEM. Why do you think such programmes are important for girls and women?
Giving them the opportunity to learn about technology from each other, and helping them share their issues and help one another can be incredibly powerful and empowering. Webgrrls was one such platform in the 1990s that offers a safe and non-threatening space for women to learn about technology, develop the skills needed to be part of the STEM industry, and build their self-confidence.
What advice will you give to girls who wish to explore a career in STEM?
You can be anything you want to be. Surround yourself with cheerleaders, not naysayers. Believe in yourself, be honest, and be proud of your achievements. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it!