Women in STEM: conquering self-doubt to solve one of society’s most difficult challenge

by | Mar 7, 2019 | Insights | 0 comments

The inclusion of women is one of the focus areas of the Innovations Against Poverty Fund (IAP). Investees receive grant funding and technical assistance to support the implementation of the proposed inclusive innovation in the IAP’s target markets of Cambodia, Ethiopia, Uganda and Zambia. Women can be included in the business models in different ways: in the company management teams, as employees, as distributors or suppliers and as consumers

Based on current pace of development, it is estimated that it will take another 170 years to achieve gender parity within companies and business at large. This is particularly unsettling seeing as full gender parity in labour markets could contribute with an additional $28 trillion (+26%) to the global annual GDP by 2025 – roughly the combined size of the economies of the United States and China today. While this development is long overdue to a certain degree in most countries, it becomes particularly important to accelerate economic and social development in emerging markets.

In this article, women working in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) will be featured. The under-representation of girls and women in STEM fields occurs globally. Although girls and women have been encouraged to engage in the field of STEM, there is still a very low proportion. According to UNESCO Institute for Statistic (UIS) less than 30% of the world’s researchers are women; and the STEM pipeline for girls and young women diminishes after high school.

The gender imbalance for STEM is also observed across the companies covered by the IAP portfolio. Although the willingness and ambition is to shift the scale at company management level and to develop training specifically for women, only a few currently employ women technicians.

One of the companies that do employ a female engineer in its young team of ten people, is Okra Solar in Cambodia. Okra Solar provides accessible, available and affordable energy to those living in off-gird areas around the world via smart, modular, mesh grid technology. Meet Nithya Menon, the woman currently working as an engineer at Okra Solar.

Working in STEM

Nithya Menon is an engineer whose expertise ranges from high tech firmware and software all the way to low tech mechanical solutions. She is motivated by applying her background toward empowering marginalized and developing communities worldwide with an interest in water management and energy access. Throughout her career, Nithya has often struggled with her identity as an engineer, but recently found new confidence and passion for her work through her team at Okra.

 “I worked tirelessly and became an engineer, but the steps afterwards were daunting. Some combination of frustration as a woman in STEM and a lack of passion for the traditional industries made me question both my competency and sense of belonging in the engineering world. I knew I had survived countless engineering challenges throughout university, but those accomplishments didn’t necessarily translate to career confidence.” – Nithya Menon.

With her team at Okra, she was newly inspired and deeply supported in stepping up as a “hardcore engineer” once and for all.

“Okra was the first chance I found to integrate hands-on, cutting-edge technology development to care about the mission of the company with their heart and soul closely with a social impact vision, tackling global energy poverty. I’ve never felt so motivated to work tirelessly. I’ve never felt so desperately engrossed with a problem I’m trying to solve. And I’ve never felt so driven to be the best engineer that I can possibly be.”- Nithya Menon.

But despite her passion and talent, Nithya continues to face cultural prejudice and gender bias in the industry, especially during meetings with external stakeholders.

“As the first and only woman at Okra, I am trying to pay more attention to sexism and other prejudices in our industries. Because even when I am thankful to be surrounded by men who listen and respect me, sexism in STEM, or otherwise, is still unavoidable. I’ve been confused as the CEO’s wife in a business meeting, and the resulting surprise when my position as a lead engineer is revealed is both infuriating and degrading. Self-doubt comes in waves and maybe my relationship with engineering will always be complex, but when I look around to a team who always has my back and proudly advocates for me, my confidence picks up again.” – Nithya Menon.

The founder and CEO of Okra Solar, Afnan Hanan, reflects on the topic of gender imbalance and shares how despite the numbers being against her, Nithya hasn’t let that hold her back.

 “It can’t be easy being the only woman in a company full men. But Nithya doesn’t just manage to fit in, she manages to shape, lead and inspire the team forward to our shared goals of equality through access to energy and technology. Nithya is working with all her heart in the off-grid, clean energy sector”. – Afnan Hanan.

Afnan is a constant advocate for bringing more perspectives and experiences to the team. To him, Nithya is so much more than her technical expertise and he knows how impactful she has been on the whole company.

“When Nithya came to the team we knew she would be great because she was recommended by another awesome engineer. However she exceeded expectations since coming on as a technical resource. She has since also taken on product ownership – managing the development pipeline of our product and also being an ambassador of the company helping others understand the purpose and what it’s like to work at Okra. It’s an absolute pleasure to have someone as diverse as Nithya fill in all the gaps to make sure we can grow as a start-up. We couldn’t have picked anyone better.”- Afnan Hanan.

For Nithya, talking about gender equality and sharing her experiences is not just about helping her team understand her, and what many other women have experienced in their careers, it’s about standing up for her belief that women need to have an equal voice in our collective futures.

“Male-dominated STEM fields are shaping our futures, the future of humanity, and the future of this planet. I cannot accept that women don’t have an equal say in our future. It’s a long road ahead to tackle gender biases and inequalities, but opening these conversations, sharing personal experiences, and talking about respect are important steps forward, and are steps that I’m thrilled to be going through with my team.” – Nithya Menon.

Nithya saw herself and many of her female peers feel pushed away from engineering. But having finally found a way to be an engineer and be passionate about the work she is doing, she encourages more women to hold onto their curiosity and problem solving mindset and keep looking for the right outlet. It’s not easy, but finding her way to create tangible impact has inspired her to keep persevering.

Gender in STEM

Gender balance in STEM industry is challenging. The underrepresentation of girls and women in STEM fields occurs globally and has resulted in companies having to make an extra effort to secure females in the recruitment process. A company outside of the IAP portfolio that has also recognized this is Tunga, a company whose business is to connect companies and organizations that would like software to be built by programmers in Africa. The CEO and founder Ernesto Spruyt commented:

 “We have an active policy of engaging more women in our community. We did notice that women are grossly underrepresented in the developer population in our communities in Uganda, Nigeria and Egypt. We have expressed the wish to grow the percentage of women working for us. That’s why we’ve started a ‘women-only’ course for a group of fifteen female coders, to help them make the final step towards employability. The program is a pilot that is currently running up to April.  Our intention is to scale it up afterwards, but for that we first need to find more partners that are committed to provide work once the students are graduated. Although we are still a young company, and we have many challenges in managing our growth, this is an ambition we will continue to pursue, no matter what.”

In the same way, Laboratoria, also has a great program for building the digital skills for young women in Latin America to thrive in tech. The program aims to solve the problems of the limited women in the tech industry in general and to respond to the fact that the Laboratoria team was not able to hire a female web developer. By April 2018, more than 1,000 women have graduated from this program, and more than 80% of them are working in tech jobs that tripled their income in average. This program is recognized by the former President of the United State, Barack Obama and many other companies including Facebook that “the success rate of the program has been extraordinary”.

Similarly, Okra Solar developed a system which brings benefit to both men and women in communities but they find it difficult recruiting more women to their team. 

“In terms of the gender equality issue, I think it’s difficult because the pipeline of females in STEM is not representative of females in the world. But we are creating products and services for males and females alike and half of the world are roughly split between male and females so we should have no excuse and work harder to make sure our workforce is gender balanced too”. – Afnan Hanan

Women in STEM in the future

While the development of the pipeline of women working in STEM is slow, the job market is not. According to research, there will be plenty of employment opportunities in STEM. For example, in the US alone, 30% will be filled with the field related to computer sciences in the future. Also, STEM professionals enjoy a pay advantage compared to non-STEM as they earn an average of 26% more than non-STEM professional with similar levels of education. Ways to increase the participation of girls and young women in STEM is to highlight examples of actual women succeeding in STEM which could inspire them by giving real-world examples including potential mentoring opportunities.

Based on his experience with STEM in Africa, Ernesto shares the view that STEM offers a major opportunity for women to gain access to flexible and well-paid work.

“With Tunga for example, we work a lot with freelancers who have a high degree of flexibility with regards to where and when they do the work. If there is one line of work where working remotely is a totally viable option, its software development. The feedback we get from the women who work for us, is that this freedom allows them to combine the work for us with other obligations and commitments they have, and at the same time contributes to them gaining financial independence.” – Ernesto Spruyt.

Similarly to Nithya, Ernesto would also like to encourage more girls and young women to pursue a career in STEM, specifically the field of software development.

“Basically, when you have a computer and you have access to the internet, you can start developing IT skills. There are many online resources for learning to code, for example via Codecademy and Udacity. Many of them are free, or at least partly free. Next step is to build experience. Start some projects for yourself or find some projects you can do for others. It doesn’t necessarily have to be paid; the goal here is to build a portfolio to be able to demonstrate your skills. Once you’ve done that, the world is at your feet! There is already a major scarcity of developers worldwide. You can access these markets through online platforms like Upwork, but of course also through a company like Tunga. In addition to that, on the international market there is an extra preparedness to hire women. In my experience, clients are only interested in one thing: quality. As long as you can demonstrate quality in a certain software framework, you are eligible for work, no matter what your gender, your nationality, etc is.

And if the fact that you’re a woman would make a difference, I would expect it is more likely to be positive than negative. So don’t be fooled by the fact that the majority of STEM professionals are male right now: STEM is definitely for women! “- Ernesto Spruyt.

Further Reading:

  1. https://hbr.org/2009/09/the-female-economy
  2. https://www.forbes.com/sites/bonniemarcus/2014/03/28/mentors-help-create-a-sustainable-pipeline-for-women-in-stem/#3978c58a53d3
  3. https://www.firstinspires.org/community/inspire/stem-gender-equity