It’s not rocket science – closing the gender gap in STEM

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It’s not rocket science – closing the gender gap in STEM


Linking female empowerment with digital transformation

“By advancing women’s equality, $12 trillion could be added to global GDP by 2025,” said Dharmendra Kanani, Director of Insights at Friends of Europe, moderating the debate ‘It’s not rocket science – closing the gender gap in STEM’ in Brussels on 12 November 2019. Given this huge business case alone, based on statistics from a recent McKinsey report, and Europe’s urgent need for IT professionals, he asked four panellists to share their thoughts on bringing more girls and women into STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

“After all these years, it seems offensive that we still have to talk about the gender gap in Europe and beyond,” said Kanani. Half of the world’s population is still denied access to the same opportunities and life chances as men, due to structural and systemic discrimination. Before introducing the first speaker, he noted that Europe still lacks the skills required for technical development. Tellingly, studies show that girls do better in early life at technical subjects than boys. Yet girls take a step backwards in these subjects around age 15, when they typically find it harder to access STEM studies.

Attracting more women into IT studies

Ecole 42 is a tuition-free computer programming school for students aged 18 or over. Based in Paris, with campuses in the United States and Europe, it aims to address the gender gap challenge with a thoughtful and innovative approach. The school’s curriculum features traditional IT skills, such as security and databases, as well as emerging technologies like artificial intelligence. Applications to the school are open to anyone, even without university degrees, so they can explore IT as a career choice. Ecole 42 also visits schools to encourage girls to take up IT studies.

“We strive for gender balance in our ICT education and training,” said Olivier Crouzet, Head of Pedagogy, adding that 15% of the school’s students are women (up from 7% six years ago) and the aim is to reach 40% plus. “Smartphones and the Internet of Things are used by half of the population, so it makes perfect sense that women should also be involved in computer coding in these fields among others.” The school’s CEO is a woman, but women only make up five of its 35 staff.

Crouzet is sure that women appreciate the school’s friendly environment and unique teaching approach – no lecturers and the freedom for students to pursue their own software development projects. These are based on collaboration, problem solving, and critical thinking. “We have found that a strong cultural, social or gender diversity among students increases peer learning and collective intelligence,” said Crouzet. He also underlined how Ecole 42 works – through actions and its communication – to tackle two common biases. Firstly, the assumption that girls don’t want to study in STEM, because culture or society say STEM is not for them. The second assumption is that girls who study STEM training often underperform, because they feel out of place doing it.

Women role models in STEM

Crouzet highlighted ‘WI-Filles’, a France-wide group introducing IT skills to female students. Other debate participants hoped that Ursula von der Leyen, the new European Commission President, will champion gender equality in the EU. She will head a Brussels-based Commission in which women make up 42% of staff, thanks to an equality push within the institution by President Jean-Claude Juncker.

Turning to the second speaker, Kanani said the European commission is often perceived as having “very white and male staff”, despite the Commission’s own small steps and numerous proposals to improve education outcomes for women.

“The EU is committed to equality and non-discrimination – values that help make us European,” replied Stefaan Hermans, Director, Policy Strategy and Evaluation, European Commission DG Education and Culture. Equality is also enshrined in Article 19 of the Treaty on European Union, while the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights goes a step further and allows for ‘affirmative action’.

Hermans recalled that the Juncker European Commission worked hard to get more women into its middle and high levels. Today around 40% of Commission staff in Brussels is female. The Commission’s DG for Education and Culture also has an equality commissioner to push equality.

Equality will be a key theme in the new Commission and in all EU areas and policies. According to Hermans, “In the education field, the Commission is raising awareness, acting together, changing mindsets and building a united front by ensuring everyone uses the same narrative.” Newly adopted EU legislation should also ensure a better work-life balance for parents and carers, bringing more women into paid employment. Hermans said that experience shows how women in the Commission often say they “are not ready for promotion to head of unit”. However he acknowledged the Commission could do more to ensure gender equality in education.

Kanani noted with disappointment that he had heard very little discussion of gender balance and discrimination, during the lead-up to the May 2019 European Parliament elections. He also criticised the European media for poor coverage of gender inequalities.

Game-changing tech

In Europe, females only account for 35% of STEM students and just 15% of ICT jobs, while just one in seven ICT specialists are women. Yet the UN has declared the 21st century will be the century for girls and women.

“To achieve gender equality in STEM, we need empowerment of girls and women plus digital transformation of our societies and economies,” said Lindsey Nefesh-Clarke, Founder and President of Women’s WorldWide Web. With her experience of using IT for development, she knows tech can be a game-changer for females: “IT offers opportunities for bridging the gender divide. Many digital apps already improve or save their lives, whilst driving socio-economic progress.” However, Nefesh-Clarke said that it would take another 200 years to achieve gender equality at the current rate of progress. Women worldwide are also chronically under-represented in IT and technology, especially in technical and decision-making positions.

She also warned of an increasing digital gender divide. Most of the world’s 3.4 billion people not online are female. Despite growing opportunities in ICT and the digital economy, the number of women choosing to work in these areas is decreasing. “Females are chronically under-represented in tech, just when Europe has 800,000 unfilled IT jobs. Yet getting more girls and women into this field would boost annual European GDP by €90 M by 2025,” she said. A worrying trend is for new technology and apps to amplify gender bias, such as Amazon’s AI-powered recruitment tool, downgrading CVs that mention ‘woman’, and Google’s speech recognition software being more accurate in general with male voices rather than female voices.

On the other hand, there is reason to hope, added Nefesh-Clarke. She noted the decades of research on gender equality and plenty of good roadmaps, action plans and solutions galore on the topic. “We need cross-sector collaboration but we don’t need a big change, because there are solutions,” she said. Like those in UNESCO’s ‘Cracking the Code’ report from 2017, which assessed the factors that hinder or facilitate girls’ and women’s participation, achievement and continuation in STEM education. The report advocated intervening in education at all levels and possibly making this mandatory in higher education.

The EU has also done rather well in digital gender equality, according to Nefesh-Clarke. She mentioned the European Commission’s Women in Digital (WID) Scoreboard, and its 13 indicators, to monitor women’s participation in the digital economy. All EU countries have signed up to this. Moreover 46% of participants in the 7th edition of EU Code Week, held last October, were girls.

“What we need is a broad European communication effort to address women in STEM, working at all levels, from local to national,” said Nefesh-Clarke, noting that more women are needed in STEM to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals 4 and 5 (respectively quality education and gender equality), as well as the EU’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. She recommended that anyone interested in gender digital inequalities should read a recent report by the EQUALS Research Group Report. ‘Taking Stock: Data and Evidence on Gender Equality in Digital Access, Skills, and Leadership’ highlights persistent digital gaps and the complexity of gender equality in ICT.

Addressing Sierra Leone’s gender gap

“A country’s progress requires developing all its citizens. So I co-founded the Sierra Leone Women Engineers and set up ‘Saturday Club’ to help secondary school girls interested in science and technology,” said Trudy Morgan, Technical Coordinator at United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) in Sierra Leone, and Vice-President of the Sierra Leone Institution of Engineers. She criticised the patriarchal nature of Sierra Leone, where most teachers are male, few girls attend secondary school and even fewer graduate from university. Women engineers who do find a job tend to get passed over for promotion.

“The EU has worked hard to introduce gender equality in its Sierra Leone projects, but the country has a serious gender gap,” added Morgan. She called for “affirmative action” to get more women into education and employment, especially STEM. This would boost the economy of the nation and make it less reliant on EU aid. “You’ve summed up how investing in women results in social and economic leapfrogging,” concluded Kanani, adding that he hoped women should see their gender as an opportunity and not a barrier.

“Affirmative action in Sierra Leone could definitely help women and other groups. For instance I believe all EU projects should first check to see whether women, girls, the disabled and marginalised can benefit from projects’ work,” said Morgan. She also highlighted how UN Women carries out gender mainstreaming throughout its projects, in line with the UN gender equality and women’s empowerment mandate.

This is a great idea, added Kanani. He reckoned gender equality should play a larger role in EU development policies and focus especially on women, for example because they suffer most from the impacts of climate change. Lindsey Nefesh-Clarke agreed that girls/women tend to bear the brunt of the impacts of global warming, but said they are also best placed to turn situations around. This assertion was backed up by Trudy Morgan, who said she was working on development projects with hundreds of Sierra Leone women who are most vulnerable to flooding caused by climate change.

During question time, one audience member wondered if it would help to introduce quotas for women studying STEM subjects. As far as Ecole 42 is concerned, replied Olivier Crouzet, this idea was dismissed because quotas were widely viewed as discrimination. Kanani agreed, noting that organisations in the UK often prefer to use the term ‘positive action’, which strives for a 50/50 gender balance in education or work. A representative of Huawei company said that China typically favours gender balance. Around half of Huawei’s communication department is made up of women. The company also recently organised bus tours in Bangladesh to encourage women to learn IT skills.

The event ended with a short speech from Ludmila Silva, Managing Director Europe of the Institute for Scientific Advancement of the South, a Brazilian think-tank. Her mother, now 80, emigrated from Syria to Brazil and struggled for years to become a scientist. After becoming the first woman to graduate with a science degree from her university in Rio de Janeiro, she overcame prejudice against woman biochemists by opening her own mobile pathology laboratory. Silva said she found this Friends of Europe event fascinating, but felt sad that women in STEM is still controversial in 2019. She invited any females interested in or working in STEM to join the new Women in STEM Network in Brussels.

Closing the gender gap in STEM



While women represent half the population, their representation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) lags behind. Women comprise less than 30% of the world’s researchers and only 35% of STEM students. Despite increased awareness and scrutiny about gender equality in technology, progress remains slow.
Solving gender imbalance in STEM requires confronting gender stereotypes, increasing recruitment transparency and improving work conditions. Real progress can only be achieved with women. The cooperation of policymakers, civil society and private sector organisations is imperative to reaching gender equality in tech and avoiding discrimination.
This Policy Insight is part of Friends of Europe’s Digital, Skills & Inequalities, which help think through the implications of the digital revolution, taking the widest possible stakeholder and community perspectives and experiences to bear upon the policy thinking and developments that will be required. We work across policy areas taking a whole society, whole economy approach – to enable policy thinking and developments to be fit for a digital 21st century.

Artist: Juliette Brocal is an animation student & illustrator from France (original source:

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It’s not rocket science: closing the gender gap in STEM Expand It’s not rocket science: closing the gender gap in STEM

While women represent half the population, their representation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) lags behind. Women comprise less than 30% of the world’s researchers and only 35% of STEM students. Despite increased awareness and scrutiny about gender equality in technology, progress remains slow.

Strengthening women’s involvement in STEM could help fill the gap between the supply and demand of tech jobs required to transition to a digital economy, leading to widespread benefits. However, girls are frequently discouraged from pursuing tech degrees and often have less access to formal education, lowering their qualification for high-level digital work. Given tech’s bias towards men, women have reduced chances of pursuing careers in the sector – and when they do, they face specific workplace challenges.

Women’s involvement in STEM in not only good for them – it is good for everybody. When women are involved in leadership, better decisions are made. When they are involved in coding, better code is written.

Solving gender imbalance in STEM requires confronting gender stereotypes, increasing recruitment transparency and improving work conditions. Real progress can only be achieved with women. The cooperation of policymakers, civil society and private sector organisations is imperative to reaching gender equality in tech and avoiding discrimination.

  • How can the EU help countries close the gender gap in STEM?
  • What barriers must be dismantled so that more girls can attain the education required for high-skilled digital work?
  • How can institutions, civil society and businesses work together to reduce gender imbalance in STEM?


Dharmendra Kanani

Director of Insights at Friends of Europe

End of debate


Photo of Dharmendra Kanani
Dharmendra Kanani

Director of Insights at Friends of Europe

Show more information on Dharmendra Kanani

Prior to joining Friends of Europe, Dharmendra Kanani was director of policy at the European Foundation Centre (EFC). He was the England director at the Big Lottery Fund, the largest independent funder in the UK and fourth largest in the world. Dharmendra has held senior positions in the public and voluntary sector and advisor to numerous ministerial policy initiatives across the UK.

Olivier Crouzet
Olivier Crouzet

Head of Pedagogy at Ecole 42

Show more information on Olivier Crouzet

Olivier Crouzet designed the pedagogical model of Ecole 42, the tech school founded by Xavier Niel: 100%-project-based, without any teacher or lecture. Students debate, exchange ideas, try, fail, try again, to reach the goal. This new, advanced training methodology has been a success and the school is in the process of creating campuses in 20 countries across the world. The school has pledged to attract more women in STEM fields. In five years, it has doubled the number of female students, aiming to reach 35% of women in the school by 2020.

Photo of Stefaan Hermans
Stefaan Hermans

Director of Policy Strategy and Evaluation in the Directorate-General for Education, Youth, Sport and Culture at the European Commission

Show more information on Stefaan Hermans

Stefaan Hermans was Head of Cabinet of Marianne Thyssen, Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility in the Juncker Commission, where he helped her promote vocational training and lifelong learning, as well as ensuring equal opportunities for all on the labour market. He is now Director of Policy Strategy and Evaluation at DG EAC, the directorate in charge of developing best practices in education policy, gathering and disseminating knowledge, and advancing educational policy reforms at the national and regional levels. He previously worked as Head of the Universities and Researcher Unit in DG Research and Innovation.

Trudy Morgan
Trudy Morgan

Technical Coordinator at United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) in Sierra Leone, Vice-President of the Sierra Leone Institution of Engineers and Co-Founder of Sierra Leone Women Engineers

Show more information on Trudy Morgan

Trudy Morgan is a civil engineer and has worked on projects both in Europe and in Africa. She led three international teams across 17 countries, designing and constructing buildings. As Technical Coordinator of UNOPS, she worked on the landslide remediation project following the collapse in 2017 of Sugarloaf Mountain in Sierra Leone. In 2017, Trudy was awarded Female Engineer of the year by the Next Einstein Forum. She’s the first female Vice President of the Sierra Leone Institution of Engineers and co-founded the “Sierra Leone Women Engineers” organisation. Most recently, she made history as the first African female Fellow of the prestigious Institution of Civil Engineers.

Photo of Lindsey Nefesh-Clarke
Lindsey Nefesh-Clarke

Founder and President of Women’s WorldWide Web and European Young Leader

Show more information on Lindsey Nefesh-Clarke

Lindsey currently leads W4 (Women’s WorldWide Web), Europe’s first crowdfunding platform dedicated to connecting and empowering girls and women around the world through education, microfinance and mentoring. With a focus on Sustainable Development Goal 5b, W4 promotes girls’ and women’s equal access to Information and Communication Technologies. In 2009 Lindsey won the Independent MBA Student of the Year Award and she was named a ‘Women in IT Role Model’ by the European Commission in 2013. In 2018 Lindsey joined the Board of Directors of the Women’s Economic Imperative to take forward the work of the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment.


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