For several years, as an IT company, we have been concerned about our difficulty to increase gender diversity within our team and alarmed by the consequences that the lack of diversity could have on our company, and more broadly on our sector and our society. This is why, in 2023, we decided to launch the STEM4Her programme, which ambition is to work towards more diversity in STEM studies is the ambition of the STEM4Her.be programme. This initiative is supported by the Service Public Fédéral Économie, PME, Classes moyennes et Énergie (Belgium).
Numerous studies show that more diversity within a company can have a considerable impact on its economic and social development. Diversity brings in a variety of different perspectives and ideas, which stimulates innovation and creativity. Women and men have different experiences, skills and points of view, which can enrich decision-making and problem-solving within the company. In addition, gender diversity fosters an inclusive and egalitarian work environment, which improve the motivation, commitment and confidence of (future) employees.
Even more important: as we all know, STEM professions are central to building the future of our society in view of the current technical and technological progress. The level of employability is very high in these jobs, which are also considered some of the best paid. If we do not address the lack of women in these fields, it will only exacerbate a societal problem that we have been fighting for decades: the exclusion of women from decision-making and the consolidation of gender inequalities in the professional world.
We considered many ways to increase the proportion of women in the STEM professions and we realized that training and higher education are essential pillars for access to these functions. Many initiatives oriented towards STEM education already exist in Belgium, especially for women in professional reorientation or for girls in elementary school, introducing them to coding or to scientific experiments for example.
We also found that Belgian girls make up 45% of students in mathematics and science in the final years of high school  and that they do as well as boys in these topics . However, at university, the gap widens and they represent only 30% of students in STEM subjects and, even more alarmingly, 17% in computer science , where they continue to do just as well as or slightly better than boys . For all these reasons, we therefore chose to focus on the high school audience and, more specifically, on the transition from high school to higher education.
Why don’t female high school graduates consider STEM subjects in the transition to higher education? According to several studies , it is the lack of practical experience and the absence of role models that prevent female students from choosing STEM careers.
The ambition of the STEM4Her programme is to remedy this problem and surround girls with more role models, experts and organisations active in STEM and digital in particular, and provide them with moral, educational and administrative support, inspiration and motivation. We expect that concrete actions involving moral, educational and financial support will help reduce barriers and biases to entry into STEM fields and increase the number of female students choosing this pathway.
Although the programme refers to STEM studies in a broad sense, we have found that — fortunately — not all science sub-fields are affected by gender bias. It is the case for example in biology and bioengineering studies. Therefore, the STEM4Her programme is aimed at girls who are considering studies where gender bias is the most prevalent: physical, computer, mathematical, chemical or engineering sciences.
The programme runs throughout 2023, from January to December, and is divided into 4 key stages: launch, selection, incubation process and support for success in the first exam session.
The launch was meant to present and advertise STEM4Her, mainly in high schools and on social networks (you can still join us on Instagram! ). We mainly wanted to raise awareness of future female high school graduates about the STEM pathways. We also organized a launch party on the 17th of February 2023, aiming to show the diversity of opportunities in graduating from STEM studies. That is why we invited 6 female speakers who undertook STEM studies, all from different sectors, to present their jobs: NGOs, entrepreneurship, public sector, academic research and private sector. It was a great success: almost 55 girls participated and more than 40 registered directly for the next stage.
More than anything, we wanted the STEM4Her programme to be action-oriented, going beyond information or awareness-raising. That is why, other than informative or inspirational events, we wanted to offer concrete support. For the first edition and based on the means at our disposal, we expected to select at least 10 girls, who will be coached to choose the most appropriated path for them and succeed in their first university term.
The selection took place on April 1, 2023 and 44 girls participated. The selection was based on a questionnaire of motivation to join and become involved in the STEM4Her program as well as on a scientific challenge aiming to evaluate their potential in hard sciences. More precisely, it was a team robotics exercise: each team, consisting of 4-5 girls, had to build a piece of a Rube Goldberg machine, which was then assembled to create a single machine.
The selected girls have now been invited to continue with the incubation programme between April and September, which includes tutoring for the entrance exams to the engineering faculties, administrative support and 6 collective events: conferences, career discovery days, exclusive evenings and team building. In addition, they will be offered a new laptop and reference books for their chosen course of study. Indeed, it was important for us to remove all the entry barriers by providing the necessary material to undertake high-level studies with complete peace of mind.
We believe that the first exam session is crucial for the success of any student leaving high school. For girls in STEM studies, it is all the more key that they feel supported morally in case of difficulty. Therefore, from the start of the academic year until the end of the first exam session, the girls will receive academic and moral support through coaching, tutoring and a supported study period for their first exam session.
The results after the first stage are encouraging and confirm that this initiative is relevant for the girls in high school. Although current resources only allow us to select a bit more than 10 girls for the entire programme, we are planning to keep sharing useful information about STEM pathways in Belgium more widely with the network of girls that we created since January.
This initiative has no profit or commercial purpose. Our aim is simply to act for a more balanced Belgian society and IT sector and we hope to continue the programme, as long as gender bias exists in STEM studies.
More information on: https://www.stem4her.be
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