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Breaking cycles that keep women out of tech

Paris

IF THE world of STEM is looking for more women as role models, Véna Arielle Ahouansou and Alejandra Estanislao are candidates.

Both are young and have degrees in a field involving science, technology, engineering or mathematics - the disciplines where women are significantly underrepresented.

Ms Ahouansou, 25, has a medical degree from her native Benin, a small West African country. Two years ago she parlayed that into a startup, Kea Medicals, that has created electronic patient record management software that is now available in five African countries.

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Ms Estanislao, 31, originally from Venezuela, also wanted to be a doctor but got a degree in mathematics and finance at a top French engineering school, and she is now a software engineer at Google in Paris.

Both women spoke at the 2018 Global Meeting of the Women's Forum for the Economy and Society last week, and said they are aware that they are the exceptions to the rule.

"It wasn't so bad at the engineering faculty, where we were about 25 per cent," Ms Estanislao said. "It was later, at work. When you find yourself one woman in a room of 30 people, that is when you feel lonely."

Ms Ahouansou, whose company employs 15 people, said men still have a blind spot - not about women in management, but about women in technology. "They need to change their mindset that science is just for them," she said.

No one disputes these days that STEM remains mostly a man's world. Much has been written about the male geek culture that dominates Silicon Valley and other technology hubs. But numerous speakers at the conference agreed that needs to change soon if women are to adjust to fast-changing job markets that increasingly require technological skills, or scientific proficiency.

"This is one of the most important issues of our time, and it is urgent," said Lindsey Nedesh-Clarke, founder of W4, an organisation that promotes girls and women in technology. "It has nothing to do with cognitive abilities, that has been proven. It is about consistent, deeply entrenched stereotypes."

The stubborn gap between men and women in STEM is evident from an early age, and continues through university to the workplace, according to Bridging the Digital Gender Divide, a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released in October.

The study found that in the developed world, women account for just 25 per cent of graduates in information and communications technology, and 24 per cent in engineering - even though women outnumber men in graduate schools overall.

According to a 2017 Unesco report, female student enrollment is particularly low in information and communications technology at 3 per cent. It is 5 per cent in natural science, mathematics and statistics and 8 per cent in manufacturing and construction. The highest is in health and welfare at 15 per cent.

The implications of a digital gender divide multiply on the global scale. Most of the 3.9 billion people in the world who are offline are women; in Africa, only 12 per cent of women are online and in the developing world, women's access to the internet is 25 per cent below that of men.

As jobs change around the world, technology - and the flexibility it promises - could offer women a chance to choose how, when and where they work. But these opportunities are lost without the skills to access them, which is why many said at the global women's forum, in which The New York Times is a partner, that giving women the skills to master technology is a social, moral and economic necessity. "Fixing that is the right thing to do," Ms Estanislao said.

The time to encourage girls to develop an interest in math and sciences is between ages 11 and 15, said Shelley McKinley, general manager for technology and corporate responsibility at Microsoft, speaking at another conference event. She cited a recent study conducted in the US that showed the gap in interest in STEM fields between boys and girls increased from 6.1 to 9.4 per cent in those years.

"What the study found is that girls want more role models," Ms McKinley said. "Where are the women STEM teachers? Girls are more interested in hands-on experience; they want to see the life applications of what they are learning. We need to focus on this."

Angel Gurria, secretary-general of the OECD, speaking at an opening event at the organisation's headquarters, said a recent effort in his native Mexico - "macho Mexico" as he put it - to expose girls in high schools to celebrated women in science and technology has had a positive affect. But, he acknowledged, fighting stereotypes is an uphill battle.

"They happen naturally, starting in families," he said. "Parents often don't have enough information. We are fighting centuries and centuries of tradition and culture."

One answer, some experts say, is to encourage paternity leave after the birth of a child, which allows new mothers to keep working, and the men to become more involved in family life and to offer their daughters in particular another role model at home.

According to OECD statistics, women are still eight times more likely to care for children than men, even though 86 per cent of men agree they should do more to share the burden at home. As several speakers admitted, attitudes towards shared responsibilities at home have changed, but behaviour has not.

"We need to make the women's agenda a family agenda," said Gabriela Ramos, chief of staff at the OECD.

A new danger is that the low level of women's participation in STEM may become self-replicating. A number of speakers at the three-day forum noted that women are woefully under-represented in the high-tech startup world. Only 9 per cent of apps are created by women; 10 per cent of innovative startups were founded by women; and female-only teams account for just 6 per cent of popular open-source programming language for data analysis.

In other words, all-male teams are writing algorithms that reflect their attitudes and biases, which inadvertently or not can exclude women.

"Algorithms are built by humans," said Emanuela Aureli, of Spencer Stuart, a consulting firm. "If women don't participate in their creation, they won't have a voice." Pronouns flagging the sex of applicants have been found inserted in job search programs, she said.

"The message is we should not reproduce the biases and stereotypes of the analog world," said Ms Ramos, chief of staff of the OECD. NYTIMES