Equality in STEM education is now more important than ever

I usually talk about topics around sales and pre-sales, but in this blog I’m taking a slight diversion into gender diversity. Our increased use of technology to collaborate, work and stay connected during the COVID-19 crisis has made me think about the importance of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) training for girls in our schools.

Women, we know, are in the minority in STEM professions. Only 28% of start-ups, for example, have a female founder. To find the reason why, you have to go back to kindergarten. Girls do not differ in their capabilities when it comes to STEM, but due to lack of encouragement from an early age, they are not as confident at pursuing the subjects.

It is little surprise, therefore, that only around 30% of all female students select STEM-related fields in higher education, with just 3% choosing ICT, according to The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

The pandemic could push women to the back of the STEM line

As the World Economic Forum has pointed out, science and gender equality are imperative to reaching global sustainability goals. The pandemic has shown us that digital skills are critical in times of a crisis. But, paradoxically the global health emergency may actually end up setting women back in STEM careers.

According to a recent report headed up by Professor Emma Johnston, Dean of Science at the University of New South Wales in Australia, advances women have made in STEM could be wiped out by the pandemic, unless action is taken.

Women have suffered greater job losses in the IT sector than men and have carried much of the burden of home schooling. Australia’s scientific and technical services industry recorded job losses of 5.6% from mid-March to mid-April 2020, with jobs reduced by 6.3% for women compared with 4.8% for men in this field.

It is hoped that the report will be a reminder to employees of the diverse perspective women bring to STEM industries. Its findings should also encourage organizations to be vigilant to gender diversity and the impact of gender decisions in the coming months as industries struggle to recover from the pandemic.

A window of opportunity

The pandemic has amplified the inequalities for girls when it comes to STEM education, and the situation could get far worse if we don’t take decisive action.

Almost 10 million children may never go back to school following the COVID-19 lockdown, according to a Save the Children Fund report. Girls’ education will suffer disproportionately as a result because they have to work or look after their siblings, for example. But, now we have a chance to turn the situation around and ensure that girls around the world not only have an education, but can see a real future for themselves in STEM.

The success of female-led countries in handling the pandemic has shown how important women are to the status quo. It is no surprise, therefore, that the UN sees gender equality “not only as a fundamental human right, but a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world.”

Changing perceptions

It has taken an unprecedented and unpredicted event to show us that it has never been more important for children to learn STEM skills. The World Economic Forum paper on “Schools of the Future” outlines the fact that technology and programming will be essential skills for the future. It is imperative that girls are not left out.

The World Economic Forum notes that public-private collaboration will be essential to ensure schools have the infrastructure to enable digital learning and insight into the digital skills industries will demand. Orange has been a trailblazer here by running Orange #Supercoders to introduce children between 9 and 13 to coding. Feedback has been that girls have been very motivated by their coding experiences. The Orange Foundation is also running Digital Schools programs in countries across Africa.

Making the connection

There is a technology skills drought, and it is only going to get worse in the low touch, hi tech economy we all find ourselves in if we don’t bring more women into the technology skills pool.

Empowering young girls with an interest in STEM and inspiring them to take up careers in technology are essential for innovation and long-term, sustainable economic growth. And, as I’ve learned from my own experiences, diverse teams also perform better.

CSR is an important component of our Engage 2025 strategy. Orange is proud to support the upcoming European Sustainability Development Week where we have prioritized Gender Diversity as a key Sustainable Development Goal to contribute towards.

Ending on a positive note, I believe that the gender gap will eventually close if we all pull together. I look forward to the day when there is complete gender parity in my industry when it comes to applications that come across my desk for sales and pre-sales roles.

Glenda Brady
Glenda Brady

Glenda Brady is Managing Director, UK and Ireland at Orange Business and has been with Orange Business since 1998. A keen and active coach both internally within Orange Business and externally, Glenda also supports various programs that encourage women in STEM and has set up a forum in the European organization for women in sales and pre-sales.

She is an avid rugby supporter (and one-time player) and, when not working or supporting her home team, she likes to run marathons.