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Where the future of work and the STEM gender debate intersect

I have a niece and a nephew who have both studied to be engineers. And yes, when you ask what kind of engineers, even there I draw a blank? For the world of engineering feels far away from my competence pool. But truth is they are both now studying and working outside of the country and I suspect those exceptionally bright minds are now lost to SA. In fact their engineer father used to consult to Eskom; of horror of horrors (shhh, he was rumoured to be working on the Madupi powerplant…) and he too now consults in Germany.

So what of it? Well as I often write about the continued inequalities in our workplaces and gender wage gap, I am aware of the work surrounding the so-called STEM industries.

And yes, if you can’t stand the land of acronyms, it does stand for Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths.

I can remember even back when I was at University that I could count the number of women studying engineering on one hand, and it doesn’t strike me as far different today?

So to link this up to the future world of work? “It doesn’t take a crystal ball to predict that in our world of ever-changing technology and digital disruption, the future of work will be shaped largely by digital natives, those who are tech savvy, and anyone with a strong STEM background.

In this era, when every company considers itself a tech company (or should), identifying and holding on to every ounce of talent is critical.”

Aside from the ongoing dilemma of retaining female talent, business is battling even more so to attract and retain women in STEM, with fewer than 30% of STEM positions being held by women.

Their career pipeline is not dissimilar to those in other industries, since their pipeline also leaks heavily, with half of the women leaving before or during their 10th year of work.

So what does the likes of Deloitte advocate? Well the first step is to expose girls earlier on to the idea of a career in STEM. I’ve seen worthy campaign conducted by the science centre and the Ella Project, to name a couple, but to bring it closer to home, my son’s primary school could not understand it when I challenged the composition of the Grade 7 media team.

Apparently the 90% male composition of the team occurred simply because that was how it had “always been”; which was precisely the point I tried and failed to reveal to the somewhat perplexed senior phase head.

Their second tip is probably not unique to STEM but to all career paths, as it highlights the very fitting approach of millennials who view their careers not as “epic novels, but as a series of short stories”.

I loved this description and confess to having millennial envy, since it is so much less intimidating to view one’s career this way, and particularly grants permission for somewhat erratic switches in direction! And frankly I think it’s a more realistic lens for the lattice type career-path that women typically adopt.

Finally the last tip was not sourced from Deloitte, but rather points to the fact that research reveals that two-thirds of women in the study who work in Stem (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) thought that Dana Scully from the X-Files served as a role model.

Now some of you are wondering who on earth Dana Scully is or what on earth the X-files are, but if you are as ‘mature’ as I, a quick Google will expose you to what was probably one of the first ‘sci-fi’ type series, which did see a woman engaging in a high-profile STEM career. This echoes two familiar themes which are critical to this debate and that is;

  • The importance of role models
  • And the power of media to influence and persuade

I blog and speak a lot about the first, but needless to say, without strong role models further up the pipeline, young women are not going to follow suit. And the last is probably self-explanatory, although I think my friend Garth Japhet, founder of Heartlines, has made an art of it.






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