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Place of women in STEM: inspiring measures and combating stereotypes

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Within the framework of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science and in line with its campaign of putting women in the spotlight, Fedactio is considering the under-representation of women in STEM and highlights inspiring measures to remedy this situation.

In this context, Fedactio took part to the meeting “Regards croisés sur les carrières au féminin dans les STIM” organized by the “Femmes & Sciences” committee held on February 11 in Brussels. Angélique Léonard, Chair of the committee and Professor at the University of Liège introduced the topic before giving the floor to various stakeholders among which:
· Marie-Martine Schyns, Minister of Education in the Federation Wallonia-Brussels;
· Dominique Lafontaine, Professor of Educational Sciences at the University of Liège;
· Roberta Pattono, Member of the European Commission’s Directorate General of the Research and Innovation Department;
· Isabelle Régner, Professor and researcher at the Laboratory of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Aix-Marseille;
· Christel Opdebeeck, Policy Officer at the Flemish Ministry of Education;
as well as various representatives of field associations (Hypatia, Interface3, Elles bougent, etc.).

This meeting made it possible to raise the issue of the under-representation of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). In fact, today, the percentage of women in sciences is only at 34% in Europe and only 20% of people engaged in engineering are women. Although this number has increased since the early 1990s, women remain a minority in these environments, which stay very masculine.

How to explain this under-representation of women in STEM fields?
Contrary to the misconceptions pretending that this gap is due to the burden of family constraints, women's difficulties in building a professional network or even lower skills than men, the real causes are quite different. From childhood, in the school environment, little girls are confronted with an under-representation of women in most mathematics textbooks, among others, which hinders the process of identification with these trades. Moreover, the lack of a female role model in scientific careers only accentuates this difficulty of identification. There is also evidence that little girls, both at home and at school, experience positive discrimination, that is to say the practice of giving more attention to girls than boys because they are assumed to have fewer skills. As we grow older, this lack of interest in STEM only increases due to the weight of the stereotypes that shape our society. Who has never heard that women are good at literature and men at math? As Mrs Régner explained, tests have shown that the anchoring of these stereotypes in our memories is such that they lead to women's underperformance in these areas, which, ironically, only reinforces them. Finally, another discrimination, the wage gap, although declining, still remains at 17%. A "glass ceiling" that goes hand in hand with barriers to professional advancement to high responsibility positions.

Attracting young girls into STEM sectors: consequences and challenges
Beyond being a major societal issue, the consequences of this disparity are many. Dominique Lafontaine explains, for example, that most girls go into so-called socially useful professional sectors such as education, health or the human and social sciences, while boys opt for the exact sciences, engineering or information and communication technologies (ICT). The gendered disproportion in educational and career choices leads to a lack of diversity in STEM, which is felt even at the highest positions, where women are a tiny minority. Thus, decisions are still made by men, for men. Furthermore, women must take part in the digital revolution facing our society, otherwise they will struggle to find jobs, the majority of which will require skills in this area in the future.

How can we make a difference?
At the European level, Horizon 2020, the biggest EU Research and Innovation programme ever, will aim to better integrate women in research and innovation in order to improve the quality and relevance of scientific publications. To do so, the European Union works in collaboration with Member States, research organizations and the European Commission. As Mrs Pattono explained, since 2011 the European Union has awarded the European Prize for women innovators every year with the aim of promoting the place of active women in research and innovation.

At the Belgian level, Mrs Schyns highlighted the provisions relating to the multidisciplinary and polytechnical nature of the core curriculum provided for in the Pact of Excellence, which was created in 2015. Thus, girls and boys will receive a common and non-gendered training that is supposed to eliminate disparities. In Flanders, the Flemish STEM Action Plan 2012-2020, presented by Mrs Opdebeeck at the meeting, increased the number of secondary school students wishing to move towards STEM courses through the implementation of a ten-point programme to upgrade these courses.

Beyond the political sphere, there are many organizations working in the field to raise awareness among young girls to the development of their skills in STEM careers and to encourage vocations. Isabelle Deflandre, Director of the non-profit association "Elles bougent" and Simon Moreau, "Genre-et-TIC" Project Manager of the non-profit association “Interface3”, had the opportunity to present concrete actions implemented by their respective organizations, including information on the professions and the promotion of STEM sectors within the framework of fairs and events, or a system of sponsors allowing young girls to identify themselves with female role models who have succeeded in these sectors.

Our commitment
Fedactio has been working for many years in favour of gender equality, in particular through its "Women & Society" platform. Through our "Education" and "Entrepreneurs" platforms, we encourage young people to undertake studies and provide them with our logistical support and experience. It was therefore important for Fedactio to raise awareness among its audience of STEM issues and related problems by participating in this event. As a citizen movement, we also want to support existing initiatives or propose new ones in order to fight against stereotypes and gender discrimination. As to whether this will happen in the near or distant future, we are counting on your support.
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