Friday 8 March is International Women's Day, an annual event that's a particularly important date in the calendar for women working in STEM. Every year, as it rolls around, we're besieged by articles talking about the lack of women going into STEM careers as well as a lot of men asking, “Why do women need a day?" and, “If there's a women's day, when is men's day?" (19th November, in case you're wondering).
Five years ago I wrote about the gender gap in tech, and it's fair to say that although we've made some progress in the digital marketing industry, there's still a long way to go. You can walk into pretty much any agency to see that women still tend to gravitate towards less technical roles - account management, content marketing, PR, social media, client services and so on rather than web design, PPC, SEO or coding.
Every year, more women than men go into higher education, and female test scores in maths and science equal or surpass those of males. In addition, there's a lot of time and effort going into programs to mentor girls from a young age into more technical subjects and careers. Despite this, stats suggest that although more women are graduating with degrees in STEM subjects (22,340 in 2016/17 compared to 22,020 in 2015/16), the overall number of female STEM graduates have dropped by a percentage point.
Why is the Number of Women Entering STEM-Professions Not Growing?
An article in The Atlantic offers a possible explanation: countries with higher gender pay inequality have a higher percentage of women entering the STEM industries than in countries like the UK. Why? Because in those countries, STEM careers offer women the quickest path to financial freedom.
So what does this mean for us, a country that reports to have a more greater gender balance in general? The same study cited by The Atlantic suggests that although women are as good in maths and science as men, women tend to be stronger in languages and reading than they are in maths and science - and women tend to read more and have better language skills than men. So, if women are choosing to go into softer careers this may not be because they are bad in STEM subjects, it's because they consider themselves stronger in other areas. Relatively speaking, they feel that science and maths are their weakest subjects - and they enjoy their stronger subjects more. Furthermore, when living in countries that allow them greater levels of choice, they choose careers they believe will bring them the most fulfilment.
It's a controversial opinion - but when coupled with ongoing issues of sexism within the STEM industries it makes sense that women simply don't want to work in more technical, male-dominated roles.
Traditionally Male Spaces
Certainly my experience of being a woman in traditionally male spaces has not always been easy - I've had professors steering me towards “easier" subjects despite my grade point average suggesting I had no such weakness; I've had male peers whove treated me like their personal assistant to do the hard work they didnt like so they could take the credit for my achievements; I've been talked over by men; I've had male colleagues (and clients) stare at my chest through meetings; I've repeatedly dealt with mansplaining; I've been asked in job interviews if I was planning to have children; and I've been forced to choose between networking at a strip club or maintaining my dignity and missing out on opportunities.
A less contrary woman would probably have thought “why bother?" and taken herself off to a career where she'd have the inherent support of her sisters.
But for me, it's been worth enduring the pain to do something I enjoy. I've always felt that it's my duty as a woman (and a feminist) to take that pain in order to open doors for the women coming after me. I hope that I've been able to play a part in bringing some great female SEO experts into the industry and in giving them the confidence they needed in order to excel . The more of us that do choose tech careers the better it will get for all of us. Certainly, working at I-COM, where two-thirds of our SEO team, two-thirds of our PPC team and half of our project managers being female, has been a bit like leaving the Dark Ages for the Renaissance.
What Can the Digital Marketing Industry Do?
I believe that if we make our workplaces more welcoming to women and if we can demonstrate how creatively fulfilling a career in tech can be, then more women will, over time, choose to pursue STEM subjects.
And if we can do more to support young women entering SEO, PPC, data analysis and coding jobs - to treat them as equals, listen to their ideas, make them feel safe and welcome at conferences and networking events - then slowly, slowly women will bring those better language skills into tech. And if we're really lucky then women will use their skills to find new ways to improve how we work, how we train our teams, how we communicate with our clients and each other, and how we can deliver great results.
And when that happens, as an industry, we'll all be better off.