For the UN International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11th, Noémie Moreau from Mantu reflects upon the current state of the nations as well as the importance of women in the STEM field and what is needed for them to feel more integrated in the workplace.
As the Head of Risk, Audit and Compliance for an international ecosystem of brands, it’s my job to identify and mitigate potential threats to our people, organization, partners, and clients. As such, I can confirm that the past few years have been turbulent for everyone; the young, the old, workers, students, and everyone in between. All of us have recently experienced some significant disruptions to life as we knew it.
The burden of this turmoil, however, has not affected us all equally. UN data show that violence against women and girls increased during the pandemic. One in four women considered leaving or downshifting their paid employment, versus one in five men. Women lost 64 million jobs and $800 billion in earnings in 2020, around 5% of total jobs held by women, while men lost 3.9%. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Oxfam estimates that 47 million women and girls have been pushed into extreme poverty.
These statistics, though harrowing, can seem far removed from the daily routines of many of us. How could I, working on reports in an office on an ordinary street in Europe, possibly hope to affect the kind of change needed to aid the plight of millions of women around the world? Well, actually, as a woman working in a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) field, I can see plenty of ways that girls and women could benefit from a step change that could begin right here, right now.
State of the Nations
The Covid-19 crisis gave female leaders a platform like never before. Political figures like Jacinda Arden, Tsai-Ing Wen, Sanna Marin and Nicola Sturgeon have been hailed for their acknowledgement of the human cost of the pandemic, and much has been written of their determination to ensure that economic concerns did not overtake their commitment to public services.
Research by Zenger and Folkman, 2020, for the Harvard Business Review explains why women are better leaders during a crisis, with women rated higher than men on all but two of 19 leadership competencies. In the context of the pandemic, one study confirmed that the number of infections and deaths were systematically better in countries led by women, with these findings echoed by another that focused on outcomes in US states with female leaders.
We must therefore ask why, then, do 85% of 115 Covid-19 taskforces from 87 countries have a male majority? Just 3.5% of these taskforces have achieved gender parity.
The answer may lie within the talent pools that the taskforce members are sourced from. Political science, research, policy, technology, and healthcare all suffer from the same problem: they are, or rely on, STEM fields, and there is a dearth of female talent at every level, across every STEM industry.
A 2018 UNESCO report summarizes this issue: worldwide, just 33% of researchers, 28% of engineering graduates, 40% of computer science graduates, and 22% of artificial intelligence (AI) professionals are women. Fewer than one in four researchers in the business sphere are female.
When considering that most university graduates are female – worldwide 41% of women and 36% of men attain a tertiary education, and 44% of PhD graduates are women – suddenly the numbers aren’t adding up. The evidence shows unambiguously that women are intelligent and committed enough to enter these fields, and yet, the “crippling shortage” of STEM professionals persists in nearly every country around the globe.
Where are all the women?
In her groundbreaking book, Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men (2019), Caroline Criado Perez addresses the ‘myth of meritocracy’; the pervasive theory that, regardless of circumstances or obstacles, the best of us will inevitably rise to the top, and that hard work and natural ability will trump bias, wealth, or social class.
Perez explores this myth using a US study of primary school aged children. At age five, both boys and girls are equally as likely to think they can be ‘really, really smart’. By age six however, girls are more likely to describe boys this way, and will actively avoid participation in games they are told are intended for ‘really, really smart’ children.
As children grow, this harmful stereotype is compounded. When asked to draw a picture of ‘a scientist’ at age five, roughly equal numbers of female and male scientists are drawn. By age seven, male scientists significantly outnumber females. By age 14, four times as many male scientists are drawn.
“Even today, in the 21st century, women and girls are being sidelined in science-related fields due to their gender. Women need to know that they have a place in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and that they have a right to share in scientific progress.” - Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO Director-General
For the women who do eventually enter STEM fields despite this educational bias, many find their careers marked by the same barriers. UNESCO data show that female researchers, for example, tend to have shorter, less well-paid careers: while women represent one third of all researchers, just 12% of members of national science academies are women, men are invited to speak at scientific conferences twice as often as women, and their research grants are dwarfed by those awarded to men.
A 2021 first-of-its-kind study of over one million patients published in the JAMA Surgery medical journal casts an uncomfortable spotlight on this issue. It found that women are 32% more likely to die, 15% more likely to suffer an adverse outcome, and 11% more likely to be readmitted to hospital after being operated on by a male surgeon versus a female one. Male outcomes did not differ on the basis of the surgeon’s sex.
The study’s co-author, Dr Angela Jerath, said that the findings could not be explained by skill differences in surgeons, “as both sexes undergo the same technical medical training”. Rather, she continues, “implicit sex biases” where surgeons “act on subconscious, deeply ingrained biases, stereotypes and attitudes” or “differences between male and female physician work style, decision-making and judgment” are possible explanations.
It’s clear that the lack of female representation that begins in academia should concern all of us: research is what powers government policy, medical practice, business priorities… in other words, data makes the world go round. But why should the world care that it isn’t spinning on its true axis, even if women are dying unnecessarily?
In short, because holding women back holds the world back. Giving women the space and support to pursue and thrive in STEM careers, to be taken seriously, and to have their contributions valued will inevitably result in better outcomes for everyone. The gender pay gap will narrow, increasing countries’ GDP. Workplaces become more productive and competitive as women gain broader skillsets and become excellent leaders. Even traditionally tough-to-tackle issues like gender-based violence improve when women can support themselves economically.
Change can start today
It’s clear that women are missing from spaces where their contributions could make a world of difference, but how can we redress the balance?
Since the repression of women’s skills and ambitions begins early, a concentrated effort must be made to ensure school-aged girls are given the same chances and encouragement as their male classmates: the damage done to the confidence and self-worth of girls in their formative years creates a domino effect that is nearly impossible to eradicate later. Change must therefore begin with a zero-tolerance approach to sexism and gender bias in schools, but this is just the tip of the iceberg.
It’s often said that seeing is believing, and the more positive female role models girls are exposed to, the more they understand that it is possible for them too to achieve their dreams. A 2020 study in the Frontiers in Psychology journal confirms that exposure to “the professional and personal experiences” of women with “a successful trajectory in STEM fields” is an “optimal” way to encourage girls to not only enter STEM fields, but to thrive.
While we must avoid making women entirely responsible for fixing the injustices they suffer, I believe that women currently working in STEM have a responsibility to make themselves visible. Taking the time to chat about professional and personal experiences with a young neighbor or a junior colleague, offering guidance and advice, or even simply acknowledging that achieving their ambition is not just possible, but probable, could be the start of a virtuous circle that changes one girl’s future.
Those of us who have ‘made it’ into STEM careers, and indeed any career, should always question how we can smooth the road for those who come after. For organizations, this starts with asking women about their lived experiences.
Part of my role at Mantu is the operational management of our Positive Impact department. Launched in 2020, one of our key goals is to ensure diversity and inclusion remain a reality as well as a priority. We are signatories of the UN’s Statement of Support for the Women’s Empowerment Principles, Principle Seven of which is ‘measurement and reporting’. Why? Because we believe in common actions and efforts to bring about change.
We surveyed and interviewed Mantu women in different roles, functions, and departments to gather their feedback on what affects their professional evolution. It’s crucial that data such as this is acted upon and not simply acknowledged; we are using the results to make concrete improvements and to facilitate women’s ascension to management roles and beyond. Conscious of the influence our French origins may have on our company culture and structure, we are also paying particular attention to intersectional and cross-cultural empowerment.
Our commitment to equality extends to our recruitment, onboarding, and promotion practices. All new team members are invited to participate in unconscious bias training, and we have made concentrated efforts to ensure our annual review process is objective, evidence-based, and peer reviewed for every single person working with us. A senior review committee then analyzes aggregated data to ensure no bias or discrimination can enter the process. Our UK entity is BS 76005 certified (BSI Valuing People Diversity and Inclusion), but we adhere to this standard across our global organization.
We want Mantu to be a place where women feel welcome, supported, and valued, but also somewhere that they can find professional, economic, and personal success. Our male colleagues play an extremely important role in making this happen, and we’re mindful to ensure that we all rise together: we believe that when one of us succeeds, we all do.
Fostering this kind of team spirit and collective awareness of the issues at hand helps to facilitate change on a daily basis: we’re witnessing teammates supporting one another, offering to lend a hand, and a general improvement in the camaraderie and morale we all want to see in our workplaces. Change may start with a supportive word or a small policy amendment today, but this seed will grow for generations to come. It’s up to us to water it.
Noémie Moreau began her career with a professional license in engineering processes for chemicals, pharmaceuticals, the environment, and the promotion of agro-resources. She graduated from the Toulouse School of Management with a master’s degree in Business Administration with a Quality Safety and CSR specialization. Noémie joined Mantu in 2016 as an Information Security officer, going on to build its Risk, Audit & Compliance department. In 2020 she assumed responsibility for Mantu’s Positive Impact department, and recently formed the company’s Project Management Office. She defines her daily job as “making everybody’s life easier and more sustainable”.