Empowering women in STEM: How we break barriers from classroom to C-suite

Genesis Elhussein
Action Lead, Education, Skills and Learning, World Economic Forum
Julia Hakspiel
Action Lead. Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice. Centre for the New Economy and Society, World Economic Forum

  • Debunking gender stereotypes around science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers must start through early childhood education and interventions for boys and girls.
  • Creating opportunities for hands-on work experience and an inclusive workplace environment is key for retaining young women in STEM careers.
  • We can only close broader gaps in workforce participation, pay and leadership if we create stronger pathways for women to progress in STEM education and careers.

While the global gender gap in education attainment in Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries has narrowed in the past decades, gender gaps in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education have been slow to shift.

As evidenced by the latest results of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), gender gaps in STEM studies become evident from a young age, with boys outperforming girls in maths by nine score points on average across OECD countries.

Across the world, gender norms and expectations that dictate what subjects boys and girls are cut out for and pursue continue to perpetuate within education systems.

Low expectations of their STEM abilities and limited career opportunities tampers girls’ attitudes towards STEM education and aspirations to pursue STEM careers. In emerging economies, girls face the additional hurdle of unequal access to digital assets and skills.

Have you read?

As a result, women remain significantly underrepresented in the STEM workforce, making up almost half (49.3%) of total employment across non-STEM occupations but just 29.2% of all STEM workers.

Attrition, especially at the very early career stages, is significant. While the percentage of female STEM graduates entering into STEM employment is increasing with every cohort, the numbers show that the retention of women in STEM, even one year after graduating, sees a significant drop.

The drop to the top is also more pronounced in STEM, as women currently account for 29.4% of entry-level workers but only 12.4% of C-Suite executives.

Given STEM occupations are likely to dominate the jobs of the future and offer much higher earning potential, we will only be able to close broader gaps in workforce participation, pay and leadership if we create stronger pathways for girls and women to progress in STEM education and careers.

women in STEM
The drop to the top is worse in STEM.

Image: Global Gender Gap Report, World Economic Forum

“Experience is key to solidifying a passion for STEM fields”

Ebru Özdemir, Chairperson, Limak Holding

In the quest for gender diversity in STEM, fostering a deeper passion for these disciplines should start from an early age. This endeavour demands collaboration between companies and educational institutions to ensure a robust pipeline of female STEM graduates entering the sector.

Since 2015, Limak has been implementing the Engineer Girls of Turkey programme (now expanded to North Macedonia, Kosovo and Saudi Arabia), which the Forum selected as a 2023 Diversity, Equity, Inclusion Lighthouse. We have learned that three factors play a key role in successfully delivering such programmes: inspiration, inclusivity and experience.

Firstly, inspiration is the foundation for cultivating a genuine interest in STEM disciplines. An effective way for companies to engage with schools and universities is through mentorship programmes. Establishing mentorship initiatives that connect women students with STEM professionals provides invaluable insights and guidance. By showcasing role models who have overcome challenges, companies can inspire young girls to pursue their passion for STEM.

Secondly, creating a supportive and inclusive workplace culture is essential in attracting and retaining female talent in STEM. Companies can collaborate with educational institutions to develop programmes that address gender bias, promote diversity and provide mentorship for female students. At the same time, by organizing joint networking events, companies can showcase their commitment to diversity and inclusion while creating platforms for female students to connect with potential employers and mentors.

Lastly, experience is vital to solidifying a passion for STEM. Companies can collaborate with schools and universities to offer hands-on experiences like internships, workshops and site visits. By actively involving students in practical applications of STEM concepts, companies can contribute to a more engaging educational experience. Companies can also actively shape STEM curricula by having industry experts contribute with their insights to ensure that academic programs align with the current needs and trends in STEM fields. By integrating practical applications into coursework, educational institutions can better prepare female students for the changing demands of the industry, making them more competitive candidates upon graduation.

Such collaborative efforts between companies and educational institutions are essential for creating a robust pipeline of female STEM graduates. By aiming to inspire, include and provide hands-on experiences, the industry ensures a more diverse and talented workforce. Also, it contributes to breaking down long-standing gender barriers in STEM.

0 seconds of 4 minutes, 8 secondsVolume 90%

“The early years are pivotal to laying the foundation of curiosity and scientific exploration and countering harmful gender stereotypes”

Sherrie Westin, President and Interim Chief Executive Officer, Sesame Workshop

The foundation for curiosity and inquiry are set in the early years and so are attitudes about gender, intelligence and sense of self. Studies show that by the time girls are six years old, they are less likely to see women as “really, really smart” and that same difference does not exist at age five. These trends make the early years an absolutely crucial time to disrupt stereotypes of intelligence for both girls and boys. And that’s precisely why Sesame focuses on young learners to lay a foundation for life-long learning, including STEM and to model scientific exploration and possibilities through our strong girl characters.

Education media can be designed to pass explicit messages on gender and STEM. Messages like “girls and boys can become anything they want” and “STEM is for everyone” can help deconstruct stereotypes that are much harder to unravel later in life. A play-based approach can also help children use scientific process skills to develop scientific knowledge through everyday experiences. For instance, our Muppets ask the questions: “I wonder” with a spirit of inquiry, “What if,” showing flexible thinking and risk-taking, and “Let’s try,” showing persistence and even celebrating the power of failure. These messages are woven into our storylines through songs and games as our Muppets learn about the world around them with curiosity and awe.

Becoming a scientist or mathematician means first seeing yourself that way – representation is key for all children, especially girls. One of my favourite examples is Ameera, a green Muppet who is relatively new to the Sesame family. She loves science, so when playing with her friends, children and their caregivers see a positive example of a girl engaging in scientific exploration. Ameera joins a long line of strong girl characters,including Lola, who talks to NASA aerospace engineers and Gabrielle, who dreams of becoming a veterinarian. These Muppets can provide both mirrors for girls to see themselves in scientific fields – as well as windows to show them a world of possibility they might not have imagined.

To increase the number of women in STEM and build more resilient societies tomorrow, I can think of nothing more powerful than investing in the young boys and girls of today.

Have you read?

“Online learning, credentialing and remote work can help unlock opportunities for women in STEM”

Jeff Maggioncalda, Chief Executive Officer, Coursera

In a recent International Finance Corporation study from Coursera and the European Commission, 45% of women and 60% of women caregivers in emerging economies said they would have had to postpone or stop studies if online learning wasn’t an option, citing mobility, safety and family obligations as key benefits compared with men.

Through diverse instructor representation and flexible learning options, online learning platforms motivate and engage women learners, leading to increased enrolment and participation in STEM courses. Between 2019 and 2023, the share of women’s enrolment in STEM Professional Certificates designed for learners without a degree or prior experience increased from 25% to 35%. Coursera research in the Global Gender Gap Report 2023 also found that, despite having lower enrolment rates than men, women develop critical skills online faster than their male counterparts.

The rise of remote work options, accelerated by the pandemic, presents new avenues for women to enter and excel in STEM fields. According to a 2022 report from McKinsey and LeanIn.org, nine out of 10 women want hybrid working models. By embracing remote work and skills-based hiring approaches, companies can diversify their talent pipelines and draw more women into STEM roles and tech leadership.

Collaboration between governments, businesses and academic institutions is crucial to expand credentialing opportunities and accelerate gender parity at scale. Public-private initiatives such as the Girls’ Education Skills Partnership exemplify the power of such collective efforts in empowering underserved communities and bridging the gender gap in STEM. By providing comprehensive support services such as broadband access, mentorship programmes and job placement assistance, stakeholders can ensure the success of women entering and progressing in STEM fields.

By making education more accessible, providing credential pathways and nurturing a supportive ecosystem, we can unlock a wide range of career opportunities and greater gender parity in STEM fields.

Previously posted at :