Opinion: Women needed in STEM on brink of Fourth Industrial Revolution

Women are underwhelmingly employed in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Not only women themselves, but governments and industries would benefit to realize the value of more women in such fields. The European Commission says that more women in information and communications technology (ICT), a STEM subfield, could increase the European Union’s GDP by nine billion euros per year.

This low-risk high-reward opportunity is being missed around the globe, with a particular negligence at home. Canada, for its gender-balanced cabinet, only sees 36 per cent of PhDs in science earned by women, while the UK and US see 49 and 46 per cent, respectively. Canada’s science minister thinks that Canadian universities aren’t doing enough to ensure gender parity.

Female participation in STEM, and especially within ICT, is of particular importance today as the world faces the Fourth Industrial Revolution: an extension of the Digital Revolution which will see heightened usage of artificial intelligence to find solutions to business and societal problems through automation. Traditionally, areas known to pose opportunities for secure and lucrative careers are STEM-related, and this will only become more true as artificial intelligence continues to find its way into the global market. Women need to pursue STEM in order to have a chance at artificial intelligence. Careers in this area may skyrocket at the same time that administrative and repetitive jobs, many of which are traditionally held by women, are at a higher risk of being automated.

Because employment loss due to artificial intelligence will disproportionately affect women, who are less likely to hold the most secure jobs, it is important to be proactive in encouraging women to take up a greater space in STEM- and particularly ICT-related careers. The World Economic Forum reports only 16 per cent of companies in the ICT industry perceive attracting female talent as a key future workforce strategy, while more than half view the biggest barrier to leveraging female talent as the lack of qualified incoming talent.

Whether women are choosing programs in ICT today or not, women were some of the first pioneers in the field. Thus, female participation in the study and practice of ICT is likely less of quality, and more of inclusivity and opportunity. Women only maintain a small share of the industry, with a 25 per cent wage gap, and only five per cent being CEOs. Though the overall employment outlook is stable for females across the ICT industry, the relative ease of recruiting women is ranked “harder”, and estimated to continue to be “harder” in 2020 by the World Economic Forum. It is all of our jobs to make it easier.

Solutions have been proposed for decades. We know that learning materials need to be inclusive and depart from gender roles, female role models in STEM are needed, equal and hands-on learning opportunities should be available, and employment policy needs to reflect the disadvantage women face in entering the STEM field. There is likely little need to propose new solutions, considering the breadth of existing solutions may not be implemented to their full extent.

What is needed is a sense of urgency to make meaningful steps toward increasing women in STEM, with a fortified focus on ICT. Perhaps what will create a sense of urgency is the potential for artificial intelligence to impact the workforce in many ways that cannot be anticipated or halted. As such, it is imperative that society, through all sectors and industries, prepares adequately for outcomes of automation that can be easily anticipated- one of which is increasing gender inequality in the workforce.

This gives rise to serious inequality concerns and an increasing gender gap due to exclusion of lower-skilled workers from the changing labour force, leading to further marginalization of these groups. In regards to women in the ICT industry, who exist in the highest proportion in lower-level jobs and the lowest proportion in higher-level jobs, their place in the field is precarious at best. The implications of this are widespread. In a world where artificial intelligence is the future, women may be excluded from what may well be the most secure industry in the economy, at the same time many other jobs typically held by women are being augmented or overtaken by automation. The impacts not only on women, but entire economies, may be devastating.

Denea Bascombe is a Juris Doctor Candidate at the University of Sydney. She earned her Master’s degree from the Public Policy and Global Affairs program at the University of British Columbia.


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