How can we can elevate Women in STEM?

Having undergone the struggles of growing up in war-torn Afghanistan, Okta developer Sara Daqiq, argues that more female representation is key towards the progression of the industry…

Stats today show that only 15 per cent of Engineering graduates are female. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) has, in the past, been male dominant, which in turn, has led to more men in the talent pool. In some regions, there are also accessibility barriers, such as reduced access to computer rooms and unequipped teaching facilities and expertise, which have led to an imbalance in engineering teams when it comes to diversity. Whilst, we’ve come a long way in diversifying STEM, we still have a way to go before the tech industry will have a truly diverse workforce. Businesses have an opportunity and an obligation to help diversify not only their workforces, but the talent pool.

Engaging the next generation of women in computer science

Having personally worked with Girls Who Code, the non-profit organisation which aims to support and increase the number of women in computer science, it’s clear the difference it makes when you give young women more opportunities and access to learn coding and STEM subjects. The alumni of Girls Who Code went on to major in computer science at 15 times the national average.

In developing countries, educating women in STEM has the ability to give women the power to gain financial independence, an agent for changing lives for the better. But these communities require more than just investment. Businesses and leaders in STEM can give back by sharing career advice, knowledge, experiences and resources to help educate and inspire young women to consider a path in STEM.

Fighting bias through equality

Bringing more women into the sector is not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. As technologies such as AI and ML begin to take off, the importance and capacity of data and its frameworks is growing. In the past, data was an outcome, however, data is now implemented within technologies, responsible for informing all our systems. This is where potential data bias can evolve. Several research centres, such as the AI Now Institute, have reported that voice and speech recognition systems performed worse for women. Most recently, YouGov found that close to two-thirds of women say voice assistants such as Siri and Alexa have difficulties responding to their commands because they are built predominantly by, and therefore for, men.

Recently, an HR recruitment tool taught itself to downgrade female candidates because men have historically held technological jobs and therefore saw males as more suitable. As a result, Amazon had to shut down a number of AI driven programmes due to this bias. Facial recognition systems have also been more error-bound with female faces and in fact find it harder to identify faces from minorities. Photos used to train computer systems include more male white than from any other demographic. A balanced developer-base will be key to developing robust, neutral frameworks and anticipating future challenges, helping to create successful end-products which work equally well for any man or woman.

Exposure is the first and most important step

Exposure to STEM is readily available in private education or in major tech hubs such as Silicon Valley or Silicon roundabout. But finding opportunities within STEM can otherwise be difficult. There are even greater challenges in developing or war-torn countries like Afghanistan, where there’s unfortunately not a market for STEM graduates. Yet, it was a computer programming insights programme in my hometown, Kabul, which piqued my interest and ignited my passion for computer programming.

It’s crucial for businesses and voices within the STEM community to give back and help give young people exposure to these subjects. Businesses have the power to educate young people on the need for talented and creative young people in the sector and why a balanced developer base is so important. It is the next wave of developers, scientists and programmers that are key to a businesses’ future prosperity, so it’s important they engage with the younger community and provide opportunities for them to learn about STEM and associated career opportunities.

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