Women in STEM: A local and EU perspective

What comes into your mind when you hear my country's name – Latvia? Medieval towns, lakes, chilly seaside? But what if I tell you that we are also proud of having the fastest WiFi speeds in the world? And let me astonish you – Latvia leads in women leadership in innovations among the EU and European Patent Office member countries. The share of women among the total number of Latvian researchers is even a little over half.

Natural development has led to this accomplishment. When you are used to men being in certain sectors or positions, it is difficult to break the habit of thinking that only a man can do that job. In Latvia women have traditionally worked in health and agricultural sciences, as well as in teaching.

In spite of this, I must admit that female staff are significantly less prevalent in the field of natural sciences (46%), engineering sciences (35%), and information technology (23%). In addition, the younger female generation is not so active in science. That is probably one of the reasons why R&D personnel make up an insignificant part of the total employment in Latvia. This is also true for the ICT sector as a proportion of the total economy. It is not just a local problem – despite substantial progress inrecent years, there remains significant untapped potential for digitisation, scientific development and productivity growth in the EU in general.

Getting more women into STEM careers would be a force for change and a major boost for these key economic sectors. This is not just about dry statistics and Europe’s competitiveness. Research and innovation suffer because women are underrepresented and do not possess the unique perspective they could provide. So does our common well-being.

Just a few examples demonstrating how women can make significant contributions leading to ground-breaking discoveries and solutions to real-world problems. Back in the 1990s, engineer Suzanne Vanderbilt noticed that many car safety tests were conducted using male crash test dummies, which didn’t accurately represent the female body. This discovery later led to the creation of safety features like side-impact airbags that better protect women in car accidents (yet crash test dummies continue to be based on male bodies). Another prominent woman in tech, Kate Ganim, created a more inclusive design for prosthetic limbs allowing female wearers to feel more self-confident. Last but not least – Dr. Eva Johansson, who founded the Swedish Women’s Health Registry, which collects data on women’s health issues. This registry has been used to improve medical care, as many medical studies only include male subjects. 

How can we promote more examples like these? By informing and inspiring. Nurturing interest in ICT and the sciences must start at an early age. Besides parents and schools, other stakeholders such as governments, NGOs, and private companies should let the younger generation try and experience discovery. More female role models could show how ‘fashionable’ it is to pursue technological or academic paths. They could also show that being creative is not just about the arts, but also about coding, mixing substances and solving physics tasks. More partnerships between educational institutions and private businesses could involve children in hands-on learning opportunities like experiments, simulations and mini-projects.

No doubt, girls are more likely to pursue STEM if they feel supported and encouraged by their peers and mentors. Creating a supportive environment with mentorship opportunities and women's networks is necessary. Meanwhile, men's role in achieving equality should be stressed more. Although many men understand that diverse teams produce better results, they often do not know how to play their part. Even the smallest steps count – supporting women’s organisations, giving valuable feedback and recommending their women colleagues for open positions.

Every one of us could become an ally for women in ICT and STEM. With continued efforts we can create a more inclusive and innovative society for the benefit of all.