For International Women’s Day in 2019, Bustle spoke with four experts working in STEM (science, technology, economics, and math) to find out what needed to be done to close its prevalent gender gap. Two years on and one pandemic later, we've decided to look back. In 2021, the subject couldn't be more pertinent as STEM industries — and those working within them — push us towards the ‘end’ of COVID-19. So, how much has the landscape of STEM changed for women since 2019, and what effect has COVID-19 had? I revisited the stats and spoke to some experts (including a few we chatted to back in 2019) to find out.
Two years ago, WISE, a group that advocates for greater gender parity in STEM in the U.K., set the industry an aim: to have 1 million women working in STEM by 2020. The good news is that this goal was met in record time, with government data confirming that 1 million women were working in core STEM occupations by September 2019.
While great gains have been made, there's still a way to go, and COVID-19 may have threatened to throw any progress off course.
However, while this is an impressive milestone, it's only one small piece of the puzzle. Other statistics show a less positive picture, with women still earning considerably less than men in fields such as engineering, for example, and male university graduates in STEM continuing to vastly outnumber their female classmates. On top of this, there is still a clear lack of Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) representation in STEM — and for women within these communities, the barriers can be even greater. While great gains have been made, there's still a way to go, and COVID-19 may have threatened to throw any progress off course.
Women & The Fight Against COVID-19
In the time since 2019, one clear win for female STEM representation has been the presence of women in the fight against COVID-19.
At the University of Oxford, for example, a team led by Professor Sarah Gilbert was among the first in the world to conduct human trials for the COVID-19 vaccine. In Germany, BioNTech, a company co-founded by scientist and physician Ozlem Tureci and her husband Ugur Sahin, developed the world’s first RNA-based vaccine.
Conversations at the World Health Organisation (WHO) about the vaccine, its rollout, and its effectiveness are being steered by women also, with WHO's chief scientist Dr. Soumya Swaminathan and Dr. Katherine O’Brien becoming leading voices in this area. Then there is the creation of Team Halo, a U.N.-backed campaign to fight misinformation about COVID-19. Here, female scientists make up around half of the 50-plus scientists on the team.
One clear win for female STEM representation has been the presence of women in the fight against COVID-19.
Elsewhere, technology-based firms have also been vital in fighting the virus, producing apps to track its spread. Design firm 5LAB in Thailand built a web tracker to give more than 8 million Bangkok residents up-to-date news and information about the pandemic. The person behind it? Ramida Juengpaisal, a 24-year-old female coder. Speaking to Reuters, Juengpaisal touched on gender equality in her field, saying there are "fewer opportunities" because of the "perception that girls are less suited for technology-based roles." Yet she ended on an optimistic note: “But this is changing.”
However, despite the prominence of women in the fight against COVID-19, there have been obvious setbacks. As Bustle reported back in May 2020, studies have found that female academics have been disproportionately affected by lockdown, unable to submit research papers at the same rate due to the struggle of balancing work with domestic life and homeschooling.
Elie Khatami, customer support vice president for Honeywell Aerospace, explains that the "unprecedented situation" of COVID-19 had a "particularly significant" impact on women.
"The pandemic has left women facing disproportionate increases in caring responsibilities and disruptions to working hours," she says. "As a society, we all must be aware of the new age we are living in and take special care to ensure the hard-won gains made by women in STEM are not lost."
"There are still negative perceptions and stereotypes attached to women pursuing careers in STEM."
It appears COVID-19 has played into stereotypes that have always threatened to weigh down women in STEM. As Nadia Attar-Bashi, research and development vice president at Mars, puts it: "There are still negative perceptions and stereotypes attached to women pursuing careers in STEM — that women need to either choose a family or a career or that women are better suited to human-centred and expressive careers or that the industry is perceived more 'masculine.'"
Aside from women already in STEM industries, COVID-19 has had an adverse effect on recent graduates too, with 60% of female STEM students telling WISE that their future career prospects have been affected by the pandemic. And sadly, the problems may start even younger than this as some experts are worried homeschooling has posed a risk for girls wanting to learn about STEM subjects due to a lack of specialised environments such as school-based labs.
Where Do We Go From Here?
It’s good to know that, for every setback for gender parity in STEM, women within the field are identifying and actioning solutions.
"It starts with education," Attar-Bashi says. "It’s so important that girls get exposure to STEM subjects and understand the potential careers opportunities. We need to grow and harvest the passion that women have for STEM subjects from a young age."
Despite some experts' concerns about homeschooling, FutureScape 248 founder Shivvy Jervis says it may offer an opportunity for progress, too.
"We need to grow and harvest the passion that women have for STEM subjects from a young age."
"The pandemic may have served to unlock [awareness around STEM] in that it has pushed so much of our life online," Jervis says. "This, in turn, means more families and teachers are taking notice of the digital economy ... and have a newfound respect for how critical digital literacy and STEM subjects can be for their daughters. Parents might be seeing firsthand with homeschooling the need for all children regardless of gender to be digitally proficient for their future."
Looking back over the past year, Kirsty Simkin, a "STEMinist" Teach First primary educator, says that COVID-19 has given her the chance to spotlight female scientists that she hopes will inspire her young pupils at Reach Academy Feltham. “The pandemic has thrust a scientific issue into the forefront of everyone’s lives. It has also given us a chance to celebrate the wonderful people — including women — who are working to find solutions to the pandemic,” she says.
Outside of educational settings, Sylvie Ouziel, Envision Digital’s international president, says women will be emboldened to enter the field if current female STEM leaders continue to hold the door open for them. "We can encourage females in STEM by featuring our female colleagues in universities, facilitating networking, [and] securing prominent speaking opportunities," she says. On the more practical side, she suggests "implementing observatory KPIs to ensure we do not fall in gender bias ourselves."
Attar-Bashi, who works as a mentor herself, says, "Through my career, I have seen that women specifically lack confidence ... I spend a lot of time building self-belief with my female mentees."
"I spend a lot of time building self-belief with my female mentees."
She adds: "My advice to women is to dig deep to understand why self-confidence is a barrier for you. No matter what others say to boost you, if you don’t mindfully counteract the voice insider your own head, it’s difficult to get over the hurdle — you need to identify the self-doubt cycle and stop it in its tracks."
Speaking about the importance of mentorship for BAME women specifically, Jervis — who is one of the few female Indian forecasters working in Europe — says that she has seen firsthand the impact her presence at conferences and keynotes can have. She explains that women will often approach her afterwards, excited to find out about her role and how she got there. "We must fly the flag for rallying more BAME Women into STEM," says Jervis.
"The Progress Is There, But It's Small & Slow"
When I ask Attar-Bashi to look back on where we've come since 2019, she says, "There is no doubt that the hurdles women face are being addressed, but we need to remain unsatisfied to accelerate progress. There’s still a big gap — when you look at data, the progress is there, but it’s small and slow."
Attar-Bashi's cautious optimism seems to summarise the feelings of everyone I spoke to. The message is clear: with enough investment and encouragement, the young women of today could become the world-leading scientists of tomorrow. But there's still work to be done.