By Zoe Tabary
LONDON (Reuters) - "Girls aren't cut out for a career in science and technology". Belinda Parmar has heard this sentence many times. In Britain, only 13 percent of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workforce is made up of women – a damning figure for a sector reporting talent shortages.
Belinda is the founder of Lady Geek and Little Miss Geek, a campaign which aims to inspire women and girls to become pioneers in technology. Here, she discusses her own experience in the STEM sector, and ways of addressing gender barriers.
Q: Why did you found Little Miss Geek and Lady Geek?
A: I started Lady Geek after a poor experience in a phone shop, when I wanted to buy a new smartphone. The male sales assistant was 15 years younger than me, thought I knew nothing about technology and made me feel alienated because I didn't know the difference between a terabyte and a megabyte.
So I thought "I can't be the only woman in Britain who loves technology and doesn't want to operate in this kind of environment". I did some research and found that a third of all British women feel patronised by the tech industry.
I then advised major companies a couple of years ago and asked one of them to speak to some of the women making their products (given that 61 percent of their customers are female). To which they responded "well there's this woman in human resources, or this one who's a personal assistant". That pretty much summed up the problem for me.
Q: Although girls perform to the same – if not a higher – level than boys in STEM subjects, a minority go on to pursue or enjoy successful STEM careers. Why is that?
A: The perception of people working in tech is one of geeks who can't get girlfriends/boyfriends, which has a huge impact on whether girls decide to pursue a career in STEM. One 10-year-old girl I spoke to told me she'd rather be a garbage collector than work in technology.
More than perception though, the gender divide in STEM is due to the tech sector not being inclusive enough, as exemplified by Sir Tim Hunt's recent comments. [Tim Hunt is a Nobel prize-winning scientist who faced a huge backlash after saying that women in laboratories "fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry"]
Words like these make women feel unwelcome.
Q: What can the STEM sector do about this?
A: Rather than use feminism as a lobbying group to get people fired, we need to use these examples of sexism to our advantage, to raise awareness of the problem. Think of some of the amazing women working in technology, and get them to explain why they – and we – belong in the sector.
Although we have seen a rise in awareness of gender equality issues, this hasn't yet translated into more women going for a STEM career. The number of women working in the tech sector in the UK has even decreased in the past year.
Q: And do you see a will from policymakers and businesses globally to address this?
A: I do, but initiatives to date to promote gender equality in STEM mostly concern small groups of people, and need to be scaled up to have a bigger impact.
As Suw Charman-Anderson [who founded Ada Lovelace Day, to increase women's profile in STEM] puts it, the gender equality agenda needs grassroots action and funding through one central body, so that initiatives can be scaled up and transcend national borders.
Q: What can schools – at all levels – do to promote STEM subjects more?
A: Education systems need to demystify STEM and make it about real-world issues. There's also a psychological aspect to it: women and teenage girls hate to "fail", even more so publicly. Coding, for instance, is very much about trying over and over again before you find a solution.
You have to give women an environment where they can comfortably "fail", so that they persevere in the subject. Regardless of your gender or the topic you're studying, I think schools should focus more on teaching entrepreneurial skills, and less on rote learning.
Q: You mentioned a while ago that you were "done with women-only events that don't engage men". How can we do a better job of involving men and boys in the gender equality agenda? Why is it even in their interest to do so?
A: I feel that whether we like it or not, men are running the country – they are, for example, heading up 95 percent of FTSE 100 companies. We can't change things unless we involve men in the debate, and yet there's a lot of fear of talking about gender.
I work with many male CEOs who tell me "I want to talk about this issue but I just don't have the language". So one of the downfalls, for want of a better word, of feminism is that we've created some kind of bubble of fear around the subject.
First we should teach boys and girls empathy skills, which are all about understanding other people and the impact you have on them.
Second, I'd encourage boys to pursue typically female gender roles and vice versa, and not stick within the artificial boundaries of their gender. Ultimately we all benefit from gender equality, be it financially, morally or emotionally.
(Editing by Ros Russell. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.news.trust.org)