23 January 2024 · 2 min read
From Barriers to Breakthrough: a conversation on women's empowerment in STEM
In a recent interview, we had the opportunity to speak with Sytske Valk, the Program Manager of the EU STEM Coalition to better understand how the organisation works to increase women’s participation in STEM, particularly focusing on the barriers they face in this field, the importance of gender representation, and initiatives undertaken to encourage more women to pursue STEM fields.
The EU STEM Coalition bridges the gap between policy objectives and effective implementation through three pillars of activities: facilitating best practice sharing, providing direct support to members, and aligning EU actions with the needs of its members.
Ms. Valk highlighted the existing barriers for women in STEM across Europe, emphasising the underrepresentation of women in STEM courses and the workforce. Factors contributing to this disparity include educational inequality, outdated curricula, math anxiety, parental expectations, and workplace challenges. To address these barriers, she suggested the inclusion of female role models, career guidance practices, and contextualising STEM education within societal frameworks.
“There are also other factors that will dishearten women during their professional life, such as sexism, unwelcoming culture at the companies, gender stereotypes, associating men with STEM, and unfair hiring and promoting practices. All of these factors make it difficult for women to succeed in the STEM sector.”
Ms. Valk underlined the economic and social costs associated with the structural underrepresentation of women in STEM. The digital gender gap alone results in a productivity loss of over 16 billion euros, according to the EU Commission. With ambitious goals for the semiconductor industry, Valk emphasised the need for a more equal gender representation to ensure a sufficient pool of skilled workers.
“If already half of your potential workforce is unlikely to join your sector, that's a big problem [...] You need a sufficient pool of highly skilled workers to make sure that the goal of 20% chips production within the EU is reached."
The EU STEM Coalition actively engages in initiatives to encourage more girls and women to pursue STEM. Programs like "aqui STEM UBC" in Spain and the "Girls Tech Fest" in Norway aim to break stereotypes, attract female talent, and increase interest in science and technology. These initiatives often involve training programs for teachers, fostering a gender-inclusive educational environment.
Ms. Valk additionally praised the European Chip Skills Academy, an Erasmus Plus program set to launch in 2023. The academy aims to bridge the gap between education, training, and the microelectronics industry, addressing talent shortages. By establishing a decentralised academy and developing innovative training curricula, the initiative seeks to enhance the resilience and innovation of the microelectronics sector.
Ms. Valk concluded by emphasising the importance of girls considering STEM professions. She believes that to achieve sustainable development goals and create a more socially and environmentally friendly Europe, fostering STEM skills and working in STEM industries is crucial.
“If we want to achieve a more social and environmentally friendly Europe we need women to work on those on those STEM skills and in those STEM industries.”