Promoting Girls and Women in STEM: Building the Talent Pipeline through Work-Based Learning

On the 11th Anniversary of International Girls in ICT Day, a day to empower and encourage more girls entering this sector, GAN Global leveraged its network of members and partners from various fields, backgrounds, and countries, to develop solutions and ideas to lower barriers for girls and women in STEM roles.

“You cannot be, what you do not see.”

Pallavi Verma, Senior Managing Director, Accenture – referring to Accenture’s research on women taking up STEM positions and the need for active role models

To break down glass ceilings and walls for girls and women at work, they need to be equipped with tools to advance. Work-based learning (WBL) opportunities, including apprenticeship, upskilling, and reskilling programmes can empower girls and women at all levels of their careers.  To gain a diverse perspective on designing and sharing solutions that increase female participation in STEM, we brought together the following business leaders and policymakers:

  • Nazrene Mannie, GAN Global, Executive Director
  • El Iza Mohamedou, Head of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Centre for Skills
  • Hae Kyeung Chun, International Labour Organization (ILO) Skills and Employability Branch
  • Pallavi Verma, Senior Managing Director, Accenture
  • Naria Santa Lucia, Digital Inclusion Lead, Microsoft Philanthropies  
  • Safia Abji, Future of Africa Advisor

The overall objective of having this conversation was to showcase WBL solutions that promote STEM skills for girls and women. As many industries become more tech-based, companies are pushing boundaries in innovations in WBL, including apprenticeships, to diversify talent and strengthen their workforces to become more digitally enabled. With STEM fields being the world’s fastest growing sector, we need to ensure that young girls and women are equipped with the digital confidence and skills necessary for an inclusive Future of Work. WBL and apprenticeship opportunities are powerful tools to attract more women and girls in fields requiring STEM skills, which are needed in almost all aspects of industry functions.

The Policy Context

Ms Mohamedou kicked off the discussion by providing a global context of the main issues at stake affecting equal participation in digital fields. She gave country examples of successful WBL programmes to attract and retain girls and women in STEM careers. To highlight the need for gender equality in these fields, Ms Mohamedou gave us insight through recent PISA – OECD data.

By age 15, only 7% of girls expect to be in STEM careers. An even smaller percentage of girls at only 1% wish to continue pathways in the ICT sector. This translates into less women and girls in STEM fields later in life. As an example, across OECD countries, only 9.5% of inventors are women. On the upside, in OECD countries, there is a closing of the gender gap overall in Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) systems with girls only slightly under-represented in upper-secondary VET programmes, accounting for 45% of all students. However, particular to TVET fields of studies, only 10% of female graduates completed pathways in the engineering, manufacturing, and construction sectors in EU countries.  

Changing Skills Demand

Ms Chun gave insight on the latest research from the ILO on skills for a greener future and in digital economies. Transitions in technological advancements and climate change are bringing opportunities to the world of work. ILO research points to shifts in new jobs created both directly and indirectly. However, we cannot tap into job creation without ensuring that people are armed with the right skills.   

Emerging Trends from Tech

Quoting the CEO of Microsoft, Mr Satya Nadella, Ms Santa Lucia stated that two years of digital transformation happened in two months at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Part of Microsoft Philanthropies’ portfolio is therefore to target skilling those who have been excluded from opportunity. Working with non-profit partners, Microsoft presses its partners to incorporate gender parity in all its joint projects.

On inclusion, Ms Santa Lucia stressed the importance for skilling women, so that they are equipped with jobs. For this to happen, we need to consider disaggregated data to target specific women populations. Microsoft is collaborating with governments to share data so that they can fund specific groups of women, especially those that have been most impacted by the pandemic.

On the job market aspect and where to invest skilling initiatives in – cybersecurity was cited by Ms Santa Lucia as a burgeoning, up and coming field with a 350% increase in positions since 2014. However, only 17% of these roles are filled by women. Another area that Microsoft is looking out for is on green skills, referring to the research that the ILO is currently pursuing as well.

Inclusion and Diversity in Technology Development

Ms Verma gave us insights on Accenture’s strategy to pave the way for change – which is to hold themselves accountable to their goals set. Its aim is to ensure gender parity with a 50% female workforce by 2025. For a company specialising heavily in technology and with 700K employees worldwide, this can lead to significant change. Currently, they have reached 46% of this goal, which is measured through annual reporting, to hold themselves accountable.

Another aspect of ensuring diversity in its workforce is through opportunities in its apprenticeship programme. The Accenture apprenticeship programme in the US lasts for six months to one year and is a pathway to a living wage job. This programme does not focus on the educational background but rather the candidate’s mindset and willingness to learn.

The aim of its apprenticeship programme is to place the apprentices with jobs. Over the past five years, the programme has scaled from 5 apprentices to 1,200. The target is for apprentices to constitute 20% of new entry-level hires. This is key to create a more diverse and inclusive workforce.

So far, the new apprentice hires have been smart, loyal additions. The success of this programme is due to structured training, leadership support and motivated apprentices. Diversity and inclusion can only happen with 1. Transparency, and 2. A clear goal to create opportunities, 3. Leadership support

The East African Context – Gaps in Training and Development for Women

According to Ms Abji, in a country like Kenya, with various states, linguistic groups, socio-economic divides, religions, etc. the needs of beneficiary groups should be better targeted. In her experience, donor funds and programmes are not always created in collaboration with beneficiaries and their unique context in mind. This aspect of inclusion is particularly important when it comes to any programme where the end goal is job creation. And when it comes to the transition between ICT training and meaningful careers, Ms Abji highlighted the crucial involvement of the private sector.

Another aspect that is important in empowering women to consider roles in ICT is mentorship – this is an often-overlooked aspect needed to understand existing opportunities and possibilities. Without the aspect of mentorship, programmes cannot benefit the groups they are targeting over the long term. While mentorship is meant to develop an individual’s professional development, it can complement job creation and future of work programmes, especially when supported by global partnerships.  Touching upon some of the skills that Ms Abji referred to in the creative economy – creativity, collaboration, problem solving – Ms Santa Lucia also noted these skills as crucial to ICT roles. She also added that change can only happen in the workplace if men can be allies and start demanding for flexibility that would allow them to also lean into home and family life. 

Policies and Measures for Gender Inclusion

According to Ms Chun, firstly, we need to design targeted and specific skills policies, because females are a heterogeneous group. We need to consider different cultures, age groups, educational levels, career paths, etc. to better understand who the target group is. Any effective intervention needs to consider the specific group of girls and women it wants to impact. Referring to Ms Santa Lucia’s and Ms Abji’s point earlier, the more granular the data, the better.

The second aspect involves including the gender component when designing skilling for STEM strategies. For these policies to be effective, the gender component needs to be crosscutting which requires all relevant ministries to participate, including social partners and business. And lastly, teachers and trainers need to have gender sensitive approaches so that females can reach their full potential in STEM related subjects.

At Accenture, Ms Verma noted the crucial importance of early interventions and referenced its relationship with Girls Who Code targeting schoolgirls through its corporate citizenship programmes. The importance of early intervention measures was also supported by Ms Mohamedou referencing OECD data that show girls having strong aspirations of pursuing STEM subjects. Adding to this point, Ms Chun added career guidance to introduce girls early on to fields in STEM.

Referring to later in life interventions, Ms Verma also gave examples of its “mom-force” policies to re-integrate returning parents into the workforce. This strategy is also about retention and ensuring an individual has a sense of belonging in the workplace. This last point on incorporating a sense of belonging is a particularly important aspect complementing diversity and inclusion measures.

Ms Verma noted the importance of mentoring programmes, and sponsorship as a more deliberate step further, especially for high performing women. Unconscious bias training is also offered to all employees at Accenture which feeds back into the organisational culture. On long-term retention for female workers, Ms Chun referred to the ILO’s work in partnering with firms to develop work-readiness programs for entry-level women as a tool to retain and help women move up the career ladder. Another aspect to consider in retaining female employees is also (and not to be neglected) on the guarantee of equal and fair salaries.  

On long-term solutions, Ms Mannie referenced Ms Abji’s work on creating platforms and GAN Global’s work in peer-to-peer learning. Her observations working across several industries and regions are that certain challenges are similar referring to digital access and equity issues. Closing the session, Ms Mannie pointed out that private sector leadership is key to understand the challenges and incorporating different voices when creating solutions, referencing the importance of including youth aspects in policymaking.

Find the link to the full recording here.