Women and STEM subjects: Where are we?

The gender gap is very evident for scientific study paths. Scientific subjects, those now known by the acronym STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), are not for women. At least not yet ... 

donne e stem

There are many women who work, excelling, in the field of science. The United Nations has decided to dedicate a day to them, which is celebrated on 11 February. One of those events that unfortunately still serves to remind the world - yes, there is a need - that gender disparity exists. Not so much in first and second level education: the girls who enroll at university are now even more than their male peers.

The world is going through a real technological revolution and now, driven by the pandemic, it will go even faster. Covid has been an accelerator of many processes, including digitisation. It forced us to keep up, to find innovative solutions at a time when we could not move, but the world could not stop. We have arrived at Industry 4.0: our factories, as well as all of us, are increasingly digital and interconnected. Speed, simplification, innovation, productivity, smart manufacturing, digitisation, IoT (Internet of Things), big data: these are the keywords of the new era. An era that requires appropriate skills, provided by the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) courses of study and so far reserved almost exclusively for the male sphere. A gap that is not only Italian: Worldwide, less than 4 out of 10 graduates in STEM subjects are women. 

Women choose humanities courses

According to a survey carried out by Almalaurea, women tend to choose humanistic and literary studies; only 17% opt for degree courses in STEM subjects, with obvious repercussions in the world of work. Moreover, although the few girls enrolled in STEM courses graduate on average with higher marks and on time, they do not obtain the same results and job recognition as men.

Why do so few women choose to enter the world of science and technology?

There are a number of reasons for this: a lack of self-esteem, the existence of prejudices, including in families, which still see the pairing of women and science as incompatible, and which already lead girls to feel inferior to boys in these areas. Women are also at a disadvantage in the workplace: their salaries are often lower, even with the same experience and level of education. The situation is no different in research and academia, where the barriers for women are also very high. In the world, women represent only 30% of researchers; in Europe, in technological sectors, the disparity is very strong: men represent 83% of the total. In Italy, as emerged from a study made public by Save the Children, in Stem areas, young women represent 41% of PhDs, 43% of academic researchers, only 20% of ordinary professors and among rectors only 7% are women.

donne e stem

They are still few, important reference modelsbut there are women who are our pride here, in our country and in the world. Let's think about Rita Levi Montalcini, Fabiola Gianotti, Samantha Cristoforetti. Let's remember Maria Rosaria Capobianchi, Concetta Castilletti e Francesca Colavita, the 3 researchers who last February isolated the Coronavirus in the laboratories of Spallanzani, or the less famous but equally talented AIRC researchers, and many others who every day study, work and commit themselves with great passion. 

Prospects for the future

According to a report byOECD, in the next eight years world GDP could increase by more than two percentage points if the participation gap of women in the economy is halved. 

Gender equality was one of the important points touched upon by Council President Mario Draghi,, in his first speech to the Senate last February 17. “The mobilization of all the energies of the country in its relaunch cannot ignore the involvement of women. The gender gap in employment rates in Italy remains among the highest in Europe: around 18 points out of a European average of 10. Since the postwar period, the situation has improved considerably, but this increase has not gone hand in hand with a equally evident improvement in the career conditions of women. Italy today has one of the worst wage gaps between genders in Europe, as well as a chronic shortage of women in senior managerial positions ". “True gender equality - he continued - does not mean a pharisaic respect for women's quotas required by law: it requires equal competitive conditions between genders to be guaranteed. We intend to work in this sense, aiming at a rebalancing of the wage gap and a welfare system that allows women to devote the same energy to their career as their male colleagues, overcoming the choice between family or work ". “Ensuring a level playing field also means - he added - making sure that everyone has equal access to training in those key skills that will increasingly enable them to make a career - digital, technological and environmental.

We therefore intend to invest, economically but above all culturally, so that more and more young women choose to train in the areas on which we intend to relaunch the country. Only in this way will we be able to ensure that the best resources are involved in the development of the country ”, concluded Draghi. What are these areas? The Prime Minister had mentioned them shortly before in his speech: those who focus on key competences in digitization, environment, technology. 

Filling the gender gap is one of the Sustainable Development Goals is a priority, as the United Nations stated, especially in relation to the incidence of women in STEM subjects. And if in the Recovery Fund, in mission 4 dedicated to education and research, there is a chapter dedicated to STEM subjects, what is really needed, in addition to funds, is a radical change of mentality. What is really needed, in addition to funding, is a radical change in mentality. A great deal of work needs to be done, first and foremost by families and teachers, paying attention to the messages conveyed in school textbooks, and dispelling the image of the student who has difficulty with science subjects and the stereotype of the mother at home and the father at work. We need to break down prejudices and clichés; this is the real and difficult challenge we face for future generations. 

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