Women in STEM: a cornerstone of Europe’s digital economy

Today sees the launch of the European Commission’s approach on artificial intelligence (AI); a comprehensive look at how Europe can best promote AI to open up new socioeconomic opportunities and create societal benefits for all Europeans. As noted by the Commission, modernizing Europe’s education systems and encouraging more young people to pursue digital careers is essential for ensuring that there will be enough ICT specialists who can boost Europe’s technological capacity and support the uptake of AI.

In this context, encouraging more women to pursue STEM studies and careers must be a key priority if we are to prevent the current digital jobs gap from widening even further. UNESCO research has found that major educational obstacles remain to achieving full gender parity in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) professions. And new Microsoft research released today shows how important role models are in fostering young women’s interest in STEM subjects.

Microsoft’s research surveyed 11,500 girls and young women aged 11 to 30, in 12 European countries. Overall, the findings showed that, when young women have a role model (other than a parent or teacher), their interest in STEM doubles. The most inspirational and impactful role models are professional women currently working in STEM fields. And what’s perhaps most remarkable is that the value of role models isn’t limited to a specific area; when girls have a role model in one STEM subject, they are more likely to show a broader interest in all STEM fields.

However, the research also shows that while role models are an important source of inspiration and encouragement, they are not the only factor for determining future career choices. While over half of the school-aged respondents with role models said they would consider a future career in STEM, just 38% of women active in the labor market who had role models have actually pursued a STEM-related career. There a clear need for further action and the right support structures to turn this initial aspiration into a career choice. At the moment, less than a quarter of women in higher education graduate in tech-related field. This needs to change.

With European policymakers such as Commissioner Mariya Gabriel seeking to further boost female participation in the digital sector, this latest research provides food for thought. Clearly, solutions must be long-term and cross-cutting: educational policies directed at boosting digital skills at primary levels, for instance, will have an impact on future workforces. We must find ways of removing stereotypes in early education and sparking girls’ interest in STEM both in and out of the classroom, but also examine other obstacles preventing women from participating fully in the digital jobs market.

This is not a problem which can be resolved overnight. It may take a generation before we see real change. But it is incumbent on all of us – educators, policymakers and industry alike – to start shaping this future today.

To learn more about the key findings from Microsoft’s latest research, and the steps we are taking to encourage women in STEM, click here

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