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Three ways to help women succeed in STEM professions

By Lizz Ntonjira | July 19th 2018
Lizz Ntonjira

NAIROBI, KENYA: Technology has transformed the world more dramatically than any other revolution in history and is one of the fastest growing areas of the global economy. At a time when opportunity has never been greater, however, women are retreating from the fields of science and technology at alarming rates.

Recent reports indicate that for instance in countries such as Chile, Ghana and Switzerland, women make up less than a quarter of students enrolled in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) degree courses. In Kenya, there have been intentional efforts by both Government, development partners and the private sector to enroll more women in STEM.

One of the biggest challenges facing STEM uptake by women is the gender stereotypes that are consciously or unconsciously instigated by teachers and the society that the field is a reserve for men therefore inadvertently shaping the choices they make about their futures. Certain messages coded in curricula, textbooks and the media can re-enforce long-standing gender biases. They perpetuate notions that men are cut out for certain professions, such as engineering, while women are more suited to others like nursing, discouraging women from enrolling onto and completing STEM degrees.

A study by the Center for Talent Innovation found that 27 percent of women in tech feel stalled in their careers and 32 percent are likely to quit within one year.

According to a recent study, "Empowering Women’s Success in Technology, IBM’s Commitment to Inclusion," by IBM and the Boston College Center of Work & Family, opportunities for women in STEM are driven by inclusion across career environments, empowerment to think freely, and the ability for women to bring their "whole selves" to work.

The case study outlines how women can be brought in STEM together for development opportunities, provide them resources to advance their careers and share best practices across the industry. Here are three approaches to consider:

1) Identify talent early: Managers identify employees who are one, two and three levels below the executive level -- but already display extraordinary leadership -- and initiate a development journey for them.

2) Focus on both technical and non-technical women: It is imperative to prioritise women for potential technical leadership roles and develop programs to advance women in those roles. One program for instance could be to develop a "pipeline" of talent aligning mid-career women with an executive coach and sponsor. At the same time, offering face-to-face workshops and learning labs, and creating a development roadmap to track progress and readiness for the next milestone in technical women's career paths.

Beyond the technical aspect of technology, there is an important place for non-technical skills: Expertise in new media, social media strategy, online business models, digital marketing, e-commerce, gadgets, and Information Technology infrastructure, which are all essential to the technology ecosystem. These are also important skills and it is important to assist the women access training and educational opportunities in this field too.

3) Lift up women -- around the community, not just the workplace: it is not only vital but prudent to ensure that communities around us are also empowered. One way to do this is to partner with organisations that are directly working with women and exploring synergies in which women in the community can be equipped with ICT skills.

According to the World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Gender Gap Report for 2017, "Gender parity is fundamental to whether and how economies and societies thrive. Ensuring the full development and appropriate deployment of half of the world’s total talent pool has a vast bearing on the growth, competitiveness and future-readiness of economies and businesses worldwide."

The WEF's report found that weighted by populations, the progress on women closing the gender gap in 2017 stood at 68 percent, or 32 percent short of where men stand in four areas, which are: Economic Participation and Opportunity, Educational Attainment, Health and Survival and Political Empowerment.

Organisations that neglect women as critical talent-management participants risk lagging behind their competitors in attracting, developing, and retaining the best candidates to serve as the next generation of leaders.

Recently IBM was honored with the prestigious 2018 Catalyst Award for leadership in building a workplace that values diversity and inclusion. This is the fourth time the company is honoured.

Research has shown a clear positive link between increased gender diversity and financial results, across different industries and countries. Women play a critical role in the global economy and for that reason, they must be present in the information technology industry, which drives innovation across all industries.

Additionally, the Cabinet Secretary of ICT, Joe Mucheru during the 2018 Annual ICT week stated that ICT is primed to drive government’s efforts towards the achievement of the countries Big 4 agenda. He reiterated that it was critical that government, industry, academia and civil society work together to evaluate the opportunities that ICT presents in order to ensure that the entire humanity benefits. It is for this reason that women cannot be left out of this key development agenda of achieving Kenya’s sustainable goals.

The writer is the Communications Manager of Central, East and West Africa at IBM. And also the recipient of the ‘International Woman in Tech’ Award in the prestigious Women4Africa Awards that took place in Kensington, London in May, 2018. 

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