Is the future of STEM male? It seems so!

Women conducting a science experiment

My blog two weeks back discussed why our metaverse avatars don’t look like us right now and why they never should (it’s all about uncanny valley). I shared a cartoony avatar I’d made of myself for illustration, and very fine she looked too. However, I can’t help but wonder how many other women that avatar would actually encounter in the metaverse as this new digital world takes off.

Not long ago, Belinda Parmar OBE, a Top 20 Diversity Champion 2021, shared a promo image on LinkedIn for the 2022 GamesBeat Summit, Into the Metaverse. At first glance, it’s nothing special, explaining that the two-day virtual event, which wrapped up yesterday, would involve thought leaders coming together to explore emerging trends within the metaverse and discuss factors impacting innovation.

As a technologist interested in potential opportunities within the metaverse, the summit sounds like it might have been fascinating. The problem is, all the thought leaders there were men. Big problem. Huge. Belinda asks: Is the future of tech male? Going one step further, I ask:

Is the future of STEM male?

The answer, it seems, is yes! The lack of women in STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering & Maths) is hardly news, but rather a regrettable fact confirmed by a wealth of stats. To give a brief picture of the current situation, in 2020 PwC found that only 17% of the tech workforce is female, only 5% of leadership roles are filled by women, only 3% of female students prioritise a career in tech, and only 3% of funding goes to female founders (more on this last point in a second).

If those numbers don’t trouble you, then they should because they not only mean that gender bias and inequity of opportunity persist but also that we’re missing the diversity of thought and experience that could lead to the next big ideas. But why are the numbers so low?

What’s stopping women from entering STEM?

Perceptions of tech, a lack of female role models, peer pressure, and gender stereotypes are but a few of the barriers. The last makes me shudder — getting back to that 3% of funding going to women, it’s gender stereotyping that almost blocked me from securing investment for the successful experience design firm I eventually founded, scaled, and later sold to EY.

In the earlier years of my career, as a behavioural psychologist with substantial experience helping major brands like Barclays and GE Europe design successful digital experiences, I hoped to establish my own consultancy. I had a great idea and a solid proposal and so didn’t think it would be a struggle to secure investment. Oh, how wrong I was.

In every meeting I took, the response was the same: Love the concept, but you’re a woman and we can’t get behind that. It was infuriating. Yes, I’m a woman, but I’m also a born problem-solver, so I thought outside of the box and hired male “actors” to front the firm (one was my brother, who went on to join the startup). Genius, if I do say so myself! And within a very short space of time, boom, there was the investment I needed.

What we’re doing about it

Of course, I don’t recommend my unorthodox approach today. I did what I had to do at the time, and I stand by the choice. Now, major firms have our back.

EY recently piloted its STEM App, which seeks to inspire girls between the ages of 13 and 18 to pursue STEM careers, in the US and India. The company is set to roll out the app in seven further countries with the intention of reaching 100,000 girls this year alone. Part of its EY Ripples Corporate Responsibility Program, the app connects girls with loads of different learning activities, from exploring emerging tech like AI to learning how design thinking (the process underpinning my startup) can help us tackle the world’s greatest challenges, such as climate change and future pandemics.

With its STEM App, EY is essentially using tech itself to break down the barriers mentioned above and others — a nice little detail in the company’s journey to female career empowerment that I adore.

The LinkedIn post by Belinda Parmar that inspired this blog finishes with a call to action for men: “please refuse to sit on a ‘manel’” (I’m embarrassed to confess it took me a good few seconds to realise a ‘manel’ is a portmanteau of ‘man’ and ‘panel’). This is a great request that I repeat to all the men of the world. Luckily, a little closer to home, I don’t need to ask this of the men I work alongside, who are already strong allies!

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Behavioural psychologist; AI-quisitive; EY UK&I Client Technology & Innovation Officer. Views my own & don't represent EY’s position. catrionacampbell.com

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Catriona Campbell

Catriona Campbell

Behavioural psychologist; AI-quisitive; EY UK&I Client Technology & Innovation Officer. Views my own & don't represent EY’s position. catrionacampbell.com

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