Why we need more women in STEM

By GT Lim

ANIKA Chebrolu, a 14-year-old girl from Frisco, Texas, wowed the world when she discovered a molecule that can selectively bind to the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) virus.

Binding and inhibiting this viral protein would potentially stop the virus entry into the cell, creating a viable drug target. Her invention clinched the 2020 3M Young Scientist Challenge and brought us a step closer to developing a novel antiviral drug. 

Since her childhood, Anika has always been amazed by science experiments and more recently, she was driven to find an effective cure for Influenza disease after suffering from a severe infection last year. Her curiosity and tenacity to make the world a better place is a testament to the contribution of young women to the world of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

Unfortunately, women still make up the minority within the world of STEM. This is an imbalance that must come to an end.

Glaring gender gap

The STEM fields are vital in the development of world-changing innovations. However, less than 30% of researchers are women, and this is true in almost every region in the world.

According to statistics by the World Economic Forum, only 3% of students pursuing information and communication technology (ICT) courses across the globe are women.

That number increases slightly to 5% for mathematics and statistics courses and peaks at 8% for engineering, manufacturing, and construction courses.

STEM jobs are fast-growing in the job market, creating a global demand for jobs within this field. This demand, however, has not been met sufficiently. If this trend continues, it will cause a workforce shortage within STEM that would inhibit the growth of scientific innovations.

The world as it is today cannot afford a shortfall in scientific innovation.

As we enter the age of pandemics with an impending climate crisis and a myriad of other humanitarian issues at hand, we need all hands-on deck to solve these problems.

Women make up half the global population which is half of humanity’s combined intelligence. Therefore, we need to empower young girls who have an interest in STEM to pursue their interest in the field so we can build up the talent pipeline and move forward in the name of science.

A recent study on mathematics aptitude which was published in Nature Partner Journals concluded that across all analyses, girls and boys showed significant gender similarities in neural functioning. This debunks stereotypes that have been entrenched in our culture and education.

Increasing women participation

“We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something, and that this thing, at whatever cost, must be attained,” opined Marie Curie, the first female Nobel laureate and the only person to win the coveted scientific accolade in two scientific fields rings true here.

Unfortunately, the pandemic has forced women’s equality issues to the backburner as work-from-home measures have confined some women back to their primary caregiving role for their families. As a result, during this pandemic, women have lost more jobs than men.

According to a recent study by McKinsey Global Institute, one in three mothers are considering leaving their jobs or scaling back their workload – the first time in six years that such research has found significant differences in “interest in quitting” between genders.

How to change status quo?

Scientific exploration and the scientific process teaches young people an important mindset – that skills and abilities can be developed over time through perseverance and learning from things that go wrong. It is vital that we impart such values to young girls and build their confidence from an early age so that they can compete on a level playing field.

This mindset helps an individual inside and outside the classroom. It creates resilience and a passion for learning that is essential to conquering challenges in life.

The history of science has been dominated by an intrinsic male bias which is reflective of the structural issues that need to be dealt with in STEM. In addressing this, I hope for a future where women all over the world are given equal opportunities, equally celebrated for their talents and their role in society, which is not confined to the shackles of traditional gender norms.

Let us work towards creating a whole new generation of confident and empowered female scientists and engineers that can ride the waves of innovation forward and spur humanity to greater heights. – Dec 7, 2020.

 

GT Lim is the country leader for 3M Malaysia where he helps drive employee engagement and advocacy to protect and advance 3M’s brand and reputation.

The views expressed are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Focus Malaysia.

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