Currently, only 37% of schoolgirls consider taking up a career in science. The result is that women are underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) jobs and only account for 17% of qualified personnel in the French tech sector. Why are there so few women in this sector?
Women have been rendered invisible
The history of IT is revealing. There used to be many women in IT jobs – from its beginnings up until the 1970s. But since then, they have gradually disappeared from the sector. “Pioneers in developing the first software, they remained in the background for a long time. And that same phenomenon is now being repeated in science careers. How many people know that one of the Covid vaccines was developed by a woman? Katalin Karikó is a name still too few people have heard”, says Claudine Schmuck, founder of Global Contact, which has been publishing a leading study about women working in science and technology since 2009.
And are underrepresented
Making women more visible is not straightforward. French science magazine Epsiloon is aware of the issue, but sometimes struggles to showcase women. “When we are undertaking iconographic searches to find laboratory pictures from the 1950s or 1980s, we systematically find photographs with men”, says Muriel Valin, the magazine's deputy editor-in-chief. “Similarly, when we are looking for quotes from researchers, we systematically find things that men have said”, she carries on. You also find evidence of women being underrepresented in cinema, on television and in teaching. With the exception of Marie Curie, students come across relatively few women.
We need to wean ourselves off stars
To make women in science more visible again, do we need to turn them into superheroes in lab coats? “We need to broaden the idea of role model. That means we need to highlight people working at all levels – from superheroes to technicians”, says Claudine Schmuck. Believing that we need to “normalise women working in science fields”, she created Science Factor – a competition through which young people – particularly young girls – meet women technicians and researchers. By talking about their careers, explaining what they do and sharing their enthusiasm, these women inspire young girls to embark on careers in scientific fields. As far as Cécile Prévieu – ENGIE's Executive Vice President in charge of infrastructure – is concerned, “we need to demystify science careers so as to give women a wider range of job opportunities”.
Encourage women to take up science careers
By adopting a proactive policy to promote gender diversity in the workplace, companies can increase the share of women in technical jobs. ENGIE, for example, introduced the Fifty-Fifty programme in 2019. Its aim is to arrive at a 40% to 60% share of women in managerial and executive positions by 2030. “We have gone from women accounting for 20% of managerial positions in 2019 to 30% today”, says Cécile Prévieu. It's worth pointing out that we are currently experiencing recruitment difficulties because of the low numbers of women who have chosen careers in STEM. They only account for 28% of engineering students. And there is a good explanation for that.
Encourage girls to choose science degrees
According to the Gender Scan survey that Global Contact conducted in 2021 targeting some 2000 engineering students, 40% of engineering students were put off studying for science degrees – either by their teachers or their families. To tackle stereotypes that damage the trust that schoolgirls have and lead them to believe that they are too sensitive or are not up to it, “we need to focus on the girls themselves, as well as their teachers and parents, who constitute two of the main sources of negative influencing”, says Claudine Schmuck. This encouragement is particularly necessary as a number of sectors are suffering a severe lack of women. “Although girls make up more than 50% of pupils doing science in the last year school, only 1.5% of schoolgirls go on to do engineering degrees. That's crazy!” says Claudine Schmuck.
Awareness raising from an early age
So what we need to do is make STEM subjects more attractive – at a very early age. With this in mind, a major information campaign is set to be launched in 2023, spearheaded by France's Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne. “We are working in partnership with the Ministry for gender equality and the Ministry for digital technologies on an innovative campaign designed to shine a light on role models at all levels. Initially, it will target some 100,000 teenagers, but it will also involve teachers”. To get people more familiar with technical jobs and get them interested, ENGIE has created a network of 400 voluntary ambassador technicians. These women and men work out in the field, enthusiastically broadening the influence of their jobs and the technical sector in order to attract new talent. They do this by visiting schools and taking part in job forums. “This work is very much focused on girls so that we will be able to recruit more women in the future”, says Cécile Prévieu.
Today's younger generations can change the landscape
Although we urgently need to encourage women to embark on STEM-based careers, there is real hope. “In this current generation, many girls are interested in environmental issues and are keen to take action. Their commitment can break down the barriers and encourage them to choose engineering careers”, hopes Muriel Valin. What's more, “things are in the process of changing when it comes to energy and sustainability – more and more women are working in these fields”, says Claudine Schmuck.