Wanted but scarce - Why are women still underrepresented in the STEM fields?

Together with our panel consisting of Janice Goodenough, Jacqueline Erhart, Katharina SchlöglMelanie Krawina, and moderator  Luise Prielinger, all former alumnae of TU Wien, the TUtheTOP alumni club discussed why we still witness such a prominent gender gap for students and professionals within STEM-fields and what we can collectively do to achieve parity in the upcoming years. The outcome? As with other major challenges of our time, there is no easy answer, however, there are multiple levers we must address: From awareness-raising of unconscious biases, role-modeling early-on, to mentoring, networking, and sponsoring female colleagues.

The latest numbers show why the topic of gender parity within STEM is up-to-this-day still a widely discussed matter. Looking at the TU Wien, the biggest technical university in Austria, the current female share across diverse studies is still far from the anticipated 50%. In 2020 women made up 20%, 11%, 40%, and 14% of students within Physics, Mechanical Engineering, Chemistry, and Software Development respectively (1). However, these numbers are semi-stagnant over the last 10 years and we only witness marginal improvements (2). Furthermore, if we look at the job market this pattern continues: Austria has one of the highest gender pay gaps within the European Union of 19.9%, with only Estonia and Lithuania being worse (3), and only one woman is represented amongst the top 75 best-paid managers of this country (4).

All of our panelists agreed that this situation is dire, however, they only became aware of the static imbalance within their first employments, where they witnessed imbalances like different behavior of women and men within meetings, or the lack of female managers. Very prominent is also an unconscious bias that can hinder women in their career progression – This bias is something that all of us have, but most are not aware of it. Even our panel is not immune against those, e.g., Luise Prielinger mentioned that she always linked a certain mathematical theorem to a man even though it was first introduced by a woman. Since most theories were published by men, she automatically assumed this would be the case for this theorem. Janice Goodenough mentioned during one meeting she thought that very prominent and assertive men were the major stakeholders due to their more aggressive behavior – However, one woman was the actual stakeholder, but Janice assumed she wouldn’t be due to her restrained manner. This observation linked back to the „John vs. Jennifer“ study of Yale researchers, which concluded that female and male professionals with the same achievements and resumés are perceived in a different matter, due to their underlying gender (5).

Our panel concluded that we need female role-modeling early on and women in decision-seats to combat such biases and the likeability-trap. The more women hold technical and management roles, the more „normal“ it appears and biases could be prevented. Speaking of female managers, the panel asked the event participants who have a female manager in their current role – Only 2 participants out of 40 said so. The panel thus concluded that female role models pave the way for the next generation of female engineers and technologists. Jacqueline Erhart mentioned that she sees a clear gender-biased conception with her younger nieces with Kindergarten-age, that already perceive individual professions as „women-jobs“ and others as „male-jobs“ and parents and teachers must intervene early to protect children from developing such polarizing biases. All of our panelists were encouraged by their families to pursue any career, especially including technical ones, otherwise, they might have never done so in the first place. Finally, intersectionality is another factor to be considered. Melanie Krawina mentioned that especially Women of Color, handicapped women, or LGBTQ+ members have to struggle with more biases and prejudices, lack even more role models, and are especially vulnerable, as can be seen through an even worse pay gap compared to male peers. Moving forward, we must especially include and support these groups to achieve a more diverse and inclusive field for everyone.

Together the panel reasoned that it is important for the next generation to find „your team“ early on. Melanie Krawina stated that every professional, independent of gender, needs 3 groups of people: peers, mentors, and sponsors. Whilst peers are colleagues on your levels, mentors and sponsors are higher-tenured professionals to support you in your career. A mentor is someone that has the knowledge to coach you, a sponsor has the power to accelerate your career and will use it to do so. Katharina Schlögel backed up this notion and stated that she was lucky to have many male peers and mentors that supported her in her academic career, which poses its individual challenges. Janice Goodenough also mentioned that she had male sponsors early on and that they were a true gamechanger for her – Furthermore, she sees a strong sponsoring and networking across female professionals right now that will definitely have an impact. Luise Prielinger concluded that everyone can be a role model and that this panel has shown today that our role models are sometimes closer than we think.

 

Whilst most of these initiatives will take time to implement, it is important to start now and keep them in mind. Hopefully, this topic will need no further discussion in a few years, because parity is the new normal. 

We want to thank everyone that participated in our event and especially our diverse panel!

 

We thank our distinguished speakers

Janice Goodenough

 Founder and CEO HYDROGRID

Jacqueline Erhart

  Team Leader for CCAD and Digital Infrastructure at ASFINAG

Katharina Schlögl

PhD Student at TU Wien working on photoswitchable monoamine transporter ligands

Melanie Krawina

  Digital Consultant at McKinsey & Company