What can we do to help women succeed in STEM studies and in the workforce?

This is the question we should always be asking, but especially today, on International Women’s Day 2022.

We’re getting better at adding women to the STEM workforce, but it’s far from ideal: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women comprised 8% of American STEM workers in 1970, and reached 27% of the STEM workforce by 2019. Female representation varies worldwide, of course. And, while the numbers reflect progress, they also point to persistent gender disparities. To improve, we need more and better engagement with women of all ages and stages — in school, in career readiness initiatives, and in the workplace itself.

It will be tough for that percentage to grow if we don’t first focus at the academic level, during women’s formative years. There is a lot of room for improvement: Women comprise just 3% of students worldwide who take information and communication technology classes, 5% for mathematics and statistics courses, and 8% for engineering, manufacturing, and construction courses, according to the United Nations. (Here are related statistics from the World Economic Forum.)

As we teach STEM concepts and make this information easily accessible and engaging, we need to simultaneously help young women envision themselves as STEM professionals. This requires mentoring combined with workplace experiences such as internships and apprenticeships. To make this possible, we need deeper collaboration between the public, private and not-for-profit sectors.

If companies like IBM are going to skill 30 million people worldwide by 2030, then women need to be well represented in that number. A more diverse STEM workforce with greater female representation is one that’s more creative, cohesive, and profitable. And a greater number of skilled professionals can bridge the persistent skills gap that has left many STEM jobs unfilled.

So, what might some of these initiatives look like?

There are multiple approaches, and at a basic level, it might resemble something our employees are doing in Taiwan. Exactly one year ago, on International Women’s Day 2021, IBM launched a concerted effort there to inspire middle and high school girls. IBM volunteers introduced fundamental STEM concepts to girls through IBM’s free SkillsBuild for Students online program, which offers a range of coursework and certification badges to learners. It also provides tools for teachers to supplement in-person classroom learning, which comes in handy when there are pandemic-related disruptions.

To spark lasting interest, the coursework demonstrates how technology is applied in the real world. To further animate tech concepts as they apply to many industries, IBMers and our clients also mentor students, bring them to our workplaces, and introduce them to female colleagues.

By the end of 2021, IBM had supplemented the STEM training of 14,000 young Taiwanese women, who spent 22,000 hours using IBM SkillsBuild.  The Taiwanese girls are also able to interact virtually with female peers in other countries who are also learning about exciting STEM careers.

Those sister countries include India, where IBMers have provided mentorship over the last several years to 200,000 middle and high schools girls in 1,600+ government schools across 12 Indian states. IBM works with educators there to curate IBM SkillsBuild coursework to foster digital fluency, software coding skills, workplace proficiencies, and personal development. With IBM SkillsBuild, teachers have tools that make it easier for them to assign and track student progress.

Not only do schools need to be a part of the solution, but not-for-profits also need to reach out to young women who have already completed high school. For instance, in Ireland, IBM works with vocational and social service organizations like Purpl Unicorn to provide practical STEM and workplace to migrant women. As with IBM’s women-focused initiatives in India and Taiwan, the IBM SkillsBuild program has been very successful in preparing women for STEM jobs.

A similar effort is underway across the world, in Mexico. There, IBM volunteers collaborate with Mexico’s Secretariat of Finance and Public Credit in a program to develop digital, business, and tech skills like programming and analytics for female entrepreneurs of all ages. Facilitators trained by IBM volunteers have reached about 20,000 learners to date! Women who took the IBM-developed courses increased their income from Internet sales by 270%. And nearly 40% of the enrollees were able to transform their side businesses into their main source of income. Sixty-eight percent said they would like to continue learning about technology.

These are remarkable results, but sharing these success stories is part of the inspiration and celebration inherent to International Women’s Day. It’s also an important moment in time where we can reflect and plan on even more successes for women in the years ahead. STEM proficiencies and STEM-related careers offer women a unique opportunity for social and economic equality, and it’s up to all of us — including male allies, companies, governments, and not-for-profits — to continue empowering women every day of the year.

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