Mariya Gabriel, European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth talks about participation of women in STEM and ICT, the concept of STEAM and the importance of international best-practice sharing in this interview with the EU STEM Coalition.
The interview was originally published in the Dutch National STEM Platform's (PTvT) online (Dutch-language) publication Vrouwen in de Techniek en ICT: Een kansrijke toekomst ("Women in Technology and ICT: A promising future"). The publication was prepared in the context of the exploration of a possible coordinating initiative focused on women's participation in STEM and IT on behalf of the Dutch ministries of Education (OCW) and Economic Affairs (EZK). In addition to the interview, the magazine includes several articles by experts from government (including Dutch state secretary of Economic Affairs Mona Keijzer), education and industry as well as relevant data and information on the current state of affairs. A full English transcript of the interview can be found below. The full e-magazine can be accessed via the link above.
Question: The recently published ‘Digital Education Action Plan 2021-2027’ and ‘Communication on achieving the European Education Area by 2025’ both include objectives related to encouraging women’s participation in STEM and ICT. Why do you think it is important to improve the gender balance and what are your ambitions for the EU in coming years?
Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workers are employed in the most technologically advanced and potentially most productive sectors of Europe’s economy. Meeting the labour force demand for STEM and ICT is a major priority for the EU. In fact, the prospect of skill shortages in these fields is one of the main obstacles to innovation and economic growth and this is particularly relevant in the context of the green and digital transitions.
Unfortunately, STEM and ICT are one of the areas in the labour market where we observe underrepresentation of women across Europe. Let’s look at some numbers. A report by the Commission’s Joint Research Centre highlights that in the construction industry, a sector with large potential for employment in the green transition, women constitute only 10% of the EU labour force. When it comes to ICT, despite large differences between countries, women hold 17% of tech sector jobs and 22% of those connected to AI. Unfortunately, these numbers indicate a participation rate that occurs at all levels of the digital economy but also in women’s representation as employees, corporate leaders and entrepreneurs. For every woman who does not have the opportunity to launch and lead a tech company, Europe loses out on talent and diversity, but also on better served existing and new markets.
Evidence shows that the underrepresentation of women in these fields is closely connected to the underrepresentation of female students in STEM education. We cannot assume a one-to-one correspondence between the subject of higher education studies and the area of subsequent employment but we must recognise that a strong dependency between education and career does exist.
Inclusion and excellence are what I stand for. Greater inclusion of women in the digital economy and increased diversity in the labour market bring social and economic value to Europe’s competitiveness, growth and innovation. As we drive Europe’s green and digital transition, we must develop sustainable and inclusive socio-economic technological solutions. Technological advancements must benefit both men and women alike, irrespective of whether these solutions are in industries based on hardware, software and information technologies, or areas such as consumer goods, lifestyle, education and fashion or AI science.
Greater gender balance also means full exploitation of our human knowledge base. Women and men in fields like STEM and ICT are equally capable of generating and circulating knowledge for innovation and economic growth. There is evidence from the Commission’s report, Women in the Digital Age, that female-owned digital start-ups are more likely to be successful, and investments in female-founded start-ups perform better than exclusively male-founded start-ups. Other studies tell us that gender equality improvements in STEM educational attainment across EU Member States would lead to a 2.2% increase in EU GDP in 2050.
One of my ambitions for the EU in the coming years is to promote gender equality in education and training - to make sure that women and men, girls and boys can fully participate, thrive, and be empowered to create a more inclusive, equitable and sustainable world. I would like more Member States to launch new action-oriented agendas just as you are doing, to improve gender equality in different fields, including STEM and ICT. This entails turning the current single digit figure of an EU average of 8% female STEM graduates into a double-digit figure. In tertiary education, this would mean no gender segregation by field of study and, in the longer term, a corresponding positive increase in the number of women pursuing a career in the STEM and ICT fields.
STEM and ICT are high on my agenda as you can see from prominent mentions of them in recent communications: Achieving a European Education Area by 2025 and the Digital Education Action Plan, as well as the Skills Agenda and the new European Research Area. These communications outline the Commission’s plans to address gender equality in education and training by promoting gender balance in study choice, academic careers and traditionally male- or female-dominated professions, getting rid of gender stereotypes in educational settings and fostering gender sensitive education and training practices. When doing this, we need to look at both schools and higher education institutions. Schools play a key role if we want to tackle the problem early on, by changing perceptions, building confidence and influencing decisions on the type of higher education study programmes girls might choose. On the other hand, high-quality higher education is crucial to equip our future generations with those transversal and forward looking skills that will allow Europe to make the most of the green and digital transition.
Question: The Netherlands is underperforming compared to other Member States in terms of woman’s participation in STEM and in particular the field of ICT. In 2018, only 16% of Dutch higher education graduates (ISCED level 6-8) in the field of ICT was female (compared to 34% in Sweden and 35% in Bulgaria). What do you think are the main reasons for these large differences between Member States?
We know that women’s participation in STEM and ICT still differs widely across the EU and, even though we have worked hard on closing the gender gap, there are still structural and social barriers impeding women’s full participation in these fields.
The Netherlands is also notable for having a more balanced gender profile of teachers than is the case across the OECD in general. At pre-primary level, 88% of teachers are female, compared to 97% on average across OECD countries. The share of female teachers in secondary education is 53%, much lower than the OECD average share (69% of lower secondary teachers and 60% of upper secondary teachers). An exception is at primary level, where 87% of teachers are female, compared to the OECD average of 83%.
The Netherlands performs well as to the Gender Equality Index, as it ranks 5th in the EU. It is also an innovation leader in the EU Innovation Scoreboard 2020. In this context, when it comes to the female share of graduates in STEM and ICT, as per the statistics, additional efforts are needed to be done.
Education and training systems are pivotal in shaping girls’ interest and providing equal opportunities to access and benefit from quality STEM and ICT education. Gender differences can already be detected in early childhood education and care, and become more apparent as young people move through the education and training system. Girls can lose interest in STEM subjects with age, and are less likely to participate in advanced STEM and ICT studies in secondary and higher education.
To reduce differences between Member States and boost the number of girls and women in STEM and ICT education and careers, we need holistic and integrated responses. We need to adopt gender-sensitive teaching and learning, challenge and dismantle perceptions and gender stereotypes, especially those that limit choices of boys and girls for their fields of study. Teaching quality and specialisation in STEM and ICT subjects are vital. This needs to be done with hands-on learning opportunities, including extra-curricular activities, field trips or apprenticeships that can inspire and engage. Female researchers, ICT professionals and STEM teachers can have a positive influence on girls’ performance and engagement with STEM and ICT studies and careers.
What we also need is cross-country analysis to understand the impact of policies. And this is exactly what an ongoing study on Girls’ Career Aspirations in STEM is doing (e.g. investigating the determinants and deterrents of girls’ career aspirations in STEM by doing a cross-country comparison on how academic and career interests develop and choices are made). Evidence-based policy making is crucial to turn the ship around. This is why I am happy to learn that the new integral agenda you plan to develop will include facilitating regional cooperation, monitoring and research, influencing perceptions and stereotypes. This is very much in line with Commission’s policy actions and recommendations.
Question: Many Member States already do have large-scale actions in place focused on women’s participation in STEM. What do you think is the main added value of additional EU-level actions and investments?
STEM initiatives to date lack outreach and impact. There are only a few national comprehensive STEM initiatives and platforms across EU-27 and this indicates a need for capacity building and awareness raising. This is where EU–added value will make a difference.
EU-level actions and investments will build on the expertise, experience and infrastructure already available, such as through the EU STEM Coalition, to support the establishment of more national STEM platforms in the EU-27 to drive systemic changes that will make STEM education more attractive and more relevant for the labour market. The same applies to making use of the large-scale partnerships of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology and its Knowledge and Innovation Communities to raise awareness of the importance of transversal skills, like digital and entrepreneurship competences, to address important societal challenges such as environmental sustainability and climate change.
The EU aims to lead by example and can offer support to Member States, for instance, with the implementation of Gender Equality Plans (GEPs) at universities and other research institutions, as key drivers for transformation and structural change. These plans aim to address imbalances at institutional level and can include targeted measures to attract more women professors and more women in research and innovation, particularly in the STEM field.
EU-level action is in fact necessary to help identify best practice, facilitate peer learning and bring together government authorities, industry, academia, civil society and STEM-related EU level interlocutors for the development of multi-stakeholder backed strategies.
EU-level support will also be beneficial for cross-country analysis comparing existing approaches and practices in STEM education by looking at their intervention logic and their opportunities and challenges. This is an effort that has already started. Earlier this year, Member States, the European Commission and experts co-created a guiding framework for developing national STEM policies on the basis of crucial elements such as existing STEM challenges in a country, underlying priorities or robustness of the actions.
Question: The Digital Education Action Plan 2021-2027 specifically mentions the STEAM approach as a means of making STEM education and careers more attractive to women. Why is it important that STEM subjects are linked to other fields of study?
Increasing the share of female STEM students and graduates may not be accomplished without transforming the way in which we learn and teach STEM subjects. A powerful vehicle for making STEM subjects and careers more attractive is the use of multidisciplinary pedagogies.
The STEAM approach removes traditional barriers between subjects and connects STEM education with arts, humanities, and social sciences. STEM and non-STEM fields of study are connected by the means of real-world problem-solving, collaboration, inquiry and critical thinking to deliver the wider range of skills that drive innovation and creativity. Teaching of science, for example, can be put in political, environmental, socio-economic, and cultural contexts.
For example, many studies show that multidisciplinary and diverse teams produce better results and consider issues that a scientist in the STEM field alone might not have considered. Science is not just about hard science. It is also about increasing citizens’ trust in scientific solutions, convincing them of the importance of policies like the green deal or digitalisation, and reducing social inequalities.
STEAM learning and teaching encourages the blending of knowledge that is required in the real world, natural curiosity and creativity. It promotes cooperation with non-academic partners and inter-sectoral learning that emphasises participatory learning, builds confidence and provides links to the world of work. As recognised in the Digital Education Action Plan, this approach incorporates real-world economic, environmental, political and social challenges and is particularly important to increase the attractiveness and relevance of STEM fields of study for girls and women.
Question: How can networks like the EU STEM Coalition contribute to achieving the objectives outlined in the Digital Education Action Plan and the European Education Area?
High quality and inclusiveness are at the centre of the EU’s roadmap for education and training for the coming years. This includes addressing skills gaps, fostering equality, and making effective use of digital technologies and learning by doing methodologies to enhance teaching and learning and boost those competences that play a key role for Europe’s recovery and future competitiveness.
Our goal to close the gender gap in STEM education and careers will never happen overnight and requires transformative actions to break down stereotypes and foster institutional change. The Commission can only achieve this through close cooperation with the Member States. Stakeholders and networks like the EU STEM coalition play a key role in supporting the objectives of the Commission’s Digital Education Action Plan and the broader European Education Area.
First, collective efforts are needed to support the development and increase the quality of new and existing initiatives through international best-practice sharing. This can also help in reducing the fragmentation of initiatives and achieving greater impact. Second, efforts at European level need to translate into mobilisation at the national level with regional and local players contributing to the objectives and playing an active and proactive role.
In this regard, it is crucial to acknowledge the efforts of the EU STEM Coalition, which supported, among others, the successful development of new national STEM strategies (e.g. Danish Technology Pact), platform organisations (e.g. Hungarian STEM platform) and implementation programmes (e.g. STEAMsare programme of the government of the Basque country). The network is also leading one of the Forward Looking Cooperation projects funded in 2019 by Erasmus+ and I am particularly curious about the EU STEM monitor that you are planning to develop for more granular and differentiated STEM statistics linked to labour market needs and outcomes.
For the future, I invite the EU STEM coalition to keep up its good work by linking new initiatives, including EU-funded projects, to existing national STEM platforms and their networks and programmes. I also invite the EU STEM coalition to support the efforts connected to raising awareness and give more visibility to the wealth of examples of talented women in Europe by, for instance, supporting the #EUwomen4future campaign. With all these examples in the areas of education, research and innovation, culture or sport, all participating women convey the message that gender equality is essential for a prosperous and fair society. They encourage other women and girls, across the EU and beyond, to seek opportunities and fulfil their professional and personal aspirations.