It may be 2023, but we still need to talk about the gender gap in STEM.
As we are approaching International Day of Women and Girls in Science we spoke to Dr Sarah Gallacher, Co-Founder and Engineering Lead at REACH Round 2 winner Urban Data Collective about what it is like for females working in STEM.
11 February marks the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, however attracting and keeping women in the field of science, technology, engineering and math seems to be a lingering issue. We are made to believe that the gender gap is closing, but sadly, the reality is somewhat different.
Females are largely underrepresented among founders, leading positions within companies and investors. Women constitute 51% of the total European population. The female employment rate has also increased to 67.3%, but only 34.4% of the self-employed are women and only 14.8% of start-up founders are female. To top that there is also a great bias that they face, when it comes to receiving financial support. In 2020 the global venture funding to female founders had dropped to a staggering 2.3%, compared to 2.8% in 2019.
“Unbelievably, the proportion of women to men in tech roles has declined over the past 35 years. And half of young women who go into tech drop out by the age of 35”, a study led by Accenture and Girls who Code states. In spite of all the efforts that are being made to reduce the gender gap, 1984 saw more female tech workers than today
The pandemic made it even worse for females across all sectors, since they seem to have been even more negatively affected than their colleagues, for example as a result of the unbalanced distribution of unpaid care and domestic tasks. All too often, women take charge of homeschooling, elderly care, and other work created by stay-at-home orders, at the expense of their own employment. Gender stereotypes and gender-based inequalities continue to prevent many girls and women from taking up and remaining in careers in science across the world (UN Women).
To take a look into two of the sectors specifically, “there is a troubling and persistent absence of women employed in the Artificial Intelligence (AI) and data science fields. Over three-quarters of professionals in these fields globally are male (78%); less than a quarter are women (22%) (World Economic Forum, 2018). In the UK, this drops to 20% women”, the “Where are the women? Mapping the gender job gap in AI” Policy Briefing from The Alan Turing Institute reports. The Institute, which was founded in 2015 is the United Kingdom’s national institute for data science and artificial intelligence, and is largely funded by the UK government. The institute does research, which tackles some of the biggest challenges in science, society and the economy. The goal of this research is to build a data and AI enriched world for the benefit of all.
The abovementioned report is from 2021, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, but even now in the beginning of 2023 the issue seems to be highly relevant since little to no progress has been made in order to close the gender gap in the technology industry. “Addressing the gender job gap in AI is the first step to ensuring that our technology works for all of society”, the Institute says.
The report has identified some possible solutions to closing the gap, with active measures being at the heart of their proposal, such as:
- Tech companies must improve the level of reporting regarding diversity and inclusion and have more in-depth analysis of diversity data, instead of only gathering headline statistics.
- Governments should require tech companies to scrutinize and disclose the gender composition of their technical, design, management and applied research teams.
- Countries need to be proactive and promote the inclusion of women and marginalized groups in the design and development of machine learning and AI technologies.
- It should be the companies’ responsibility to implement gender inclusive labour market policies, such as paid maternity and parental leave and flexible working hours and affordable childcare must be provided.
- Intersectional gender mainstreaming should be implemented by tech companies in human resources policy so that women and men are given equal access to well-paid jobs and careers.
We also identify the need for more structural assistance in terms of specific programs aimed at supporting female entrepreneurs and startups.
To this end, there are some EU funded programs that serve this purpose. REACH Incubator, for example, is a EU funded program that aims to facilitate corporate and startup data-based collaborations via its 11-month digital and physical program. The program has built on the successful efforts of European Data Incubator, which has notably supported Laura Murphy in her development of Amplify Analytics. REACH has been up and running for 2 years now, and has also supported several female entrepreneurs in their data driven endeavors, Harriett Smith from CyStellar, and Dr Sarah Gallacher from Urban Data Collective to name a few.
In order to diminish the gender gap, the programme is transparent about the changes in the gender balance within its incubated startups, reporting on it on a regular basis. The surveyed Round 1 startups reported a change of 30% in the gender balance of their teams after the completion of the programme, while this percentage for the Round 2 startups grew to 60%. Attracting female entrepreneurs to the programme and promoting gender diversity within our incubated teams is something that REACH really strives for.
Dr Sarah Gallacher is Co-Founder and Engineering Lead at REACH Round 2 winner Urban Data Collective, a company based in London, UK. She is a great example of a woman at the forefront of a predominantly male-led ecosystem. Sarah was very excited to speak to us about her journey in STEM, the challenges she has faced throughout the years and what it is like being a female leader.
Dr Sarah Gallacher
Co-Founder and Engineering Lead
Urban Data Collective
Hi Sarah! It’s such a pleasure to speak with you, thank you for taking the time to talk to us about the lack of diversity in STEM! We wanted to kick off this interview with you telling us a little bit more about your journey in STEM. How did you get started and what made you think “This is it, this is the path I’d like to pursue”?
I enjoyed all kinds of subjects at school and didn’t think too much about career at any point. It was always about what I enjoyed most, and I ended up studying a broad spectrum of subjects. For example, we had a piano at home which I loved playing and I studied music for many years, but I also remember when my family got our first home computer and becoming a bit obsessed with it. I didn’t want to go to school, instead I wanted to stay home and play on the computer.
I was very lucky at that age that no one tried to discourage me from any subjects or encourage me towards certain others. I never felt that I shouldn’t or couldn’t do something. Instead, I felt free to do what appealed to me most and Computer Science became that subject. It was the ideal blend of problem solving, engineering, and creativity and was a space where I could build new things and push boundaries.
I went on to study Computer Science and Software Engineering at University and did a PhD in Machine Learning. Since then, I have worked in both academic and industrial research, and more recently moved towards the commercial world.
What I have always loved about technology is the broad spectrum of disciplines and the opportunities to diversify. Even now, my career continues to be driven by what I enjoy doing and is evolving rather than following a defined plan.
Have you ever had any doubts or faced any challenges that made you consider quitting?
Luckily, I have never faced any situations so severe, however there are always frustrations. Typically, they are small things, like being one of only a few females at large technical events, or consistently being the only female around the meeting room table. Sometimes it’s being singled out in a room full of male colleagues – like being individually apologised to because someone swore. Sometimes it’s being patronised or underestimated by someone who assumes you aren’t technical, or the quick flash or surprise/skepticism across someone’s face when I state that I’m the Engineering Lead for my company.
Thankfully, these things are not enough to divert me from doing what I love and throughout my career I have been so fortunate to work with many inspiring, supportive women and men who have helped me progress.
You founded Urban Data Collective with Alex Gluhak in 2021, around the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the most turbulent times during which people were losing their jobs and facing uncertainty. How did you take the leap?
Running a startup is something that I have thought about many times, but it is a huge step, and the risks were always too high. However, with Urban Data Collective, Alex had successfully secured pre-seed funding and support from our parent company, so the risks and hurdles felt more manageable. Alex and I have also known each other for quite a few years and trusted each other to deliver what was required.
Urban Data Collective is now at its second birthday, and I have no regrets in making the leap. Of course, there have been ups and downs, as there are with any startup but we have come through and learned so much in the process.
You are still one of the few female leads in your field. How does that make you feel?
It’s disappointing. There is no good reason why there are much fewer of us. However, I have had the opportunity to work with some amazing female leaders and always reflect on what I have learned from them and how they continue to drive and shape their fields. It only takes one or two such experiences to have a big impact on your life and career, when you feel you have found your champion.
What improvements do you think could be made by governments and companies to attract more female talent and promote female leadership in the context of STEM?
Any improvements or interventions should happen as early as possible, ideally in primary schools and then continue throughout all stages of education. It’s important to remove all references to STEM subjects as being more masculine and instead promote neutrality and inclusiveness.
A big part of that is seeing role models that you, as a young person, can relate to. For example, I had some great maths, science and technology teachers who were female and who reinforced an unconscious belief in me that these subjects were open to me with no stereotypes or stigma.
Role models are equally necessary at career level and given the relatively low numbers of females in senior positions it is important for companies to have a strategy towards balance at every level of their hierarchy. It’s not easy and it may take some time, but this needs to be part of regular discussion and review.
Did you feel supported throughout the REACH programme and what do you think EU-funded programs can do to attract more female founders?
I really enjoyed the REACH programme and although there was an obvious gender imbalance I met some amazing women from other startups in the process. Thinking about how future EU funded programmes could attract more female founders, perhaps there could be more dedicated outreach and promotion to female founder groups and other accelerators dedicated to female founders.