Dr. Deandra Cutajar, data scientist at Concirrus, discusses her participation in a recent Girls in STEM event, her own STEM journey, and why it is so important for young women to have STEM role models.
The 22nd April marked the 10-year anniversary of GirlsinICT which is a series of events organised by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). The Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs in Malta invited girl’s schools across the country to join the event (virtually due to the pandemic) and hear stories from Maltese women who are actively working within the STEM field (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), both academic and industrial.
As a Maltese woman in STEM, I was honoured to be part of the panel, share my journey, and encourage the next generation of women in STEM. Over the last decade, we have seen gradual progress in the number of women entering STEM fields. Recent statistics show the number of women in STEM has grown from 22,020 in 2015, to 24,705 in 2019. However, women are still underrepresented due to various barriers.
Inspiring young women
Stereotypes associated with STEM continually discourage women from having successful STEM careers. I was lucky enough to grow up in a household where my parents encouraged me to enter the sciences. However, I still faced a certain amount of criticism and judgment for having a passion for a field that has been historically dominated by men. It can be hard to filter out these negative comments as a young woman. Stereotypes about the nature of STEM work, and people working in STEM, are powerful drivers of gendered aspirations and affinities. These stereotypes can affect girls’ interest and confidence in the sciences, and they influence environments at home, school, and work. We’re heavily influenced as teenagers, and if young women receive the message that STEM is ‘for boys,’ it can be detrimental and prevent girls from choosing STEM subjects at school.
A fantastic way to overcome these stereotypes is through female role models. When young girls see women at these events it can increase their affiliation with STEM and reinforce the idea that they can succeed in a STEM career. These events also provide a platform to inspire young girls, giving them the opportunity to talk to their female peers who are passionate about STEM. This can address some of the possible doubts girls face about whether they will be able to reach their potential. Research suggests that when it comes to attracting female talent into the sciences, having a role model is crucial, with 64 percent of women claiming to have been motivated by an inspirational figure to pursue their career.
Education is also key to closing the STEM gender gap. Schools and universities have a responsibility to encourage girls that are passionate about the sciences and technology into STEM careers. STEM events are a great way to kick start an interest in STEM by educating and encouraging girls to excel in these subjects. This will increase the rate of women that continue to study these subjects at higher education, leading to more women entering the workforce.
Women and the workforce
While women constitute almost 50% of the labour market, there are only 28% of women in STEM fields as opposed to 72% of men. A lack of representation is also affected by life events, with women traditionally taking a back seat in their career when they have children. Today, specific improvements have helped change the narrative. Many tech companies provide security by making their maternity policy as flexible and inclusive as possible. e.g., Adobe offers mothers a total of 26 weeks of fully paid time off. I also believe that with remote working becoming more of the ‘norm’ we will see a huge increase in the number of women returning to STEM after significant life events.
My Journey into STEM
When I was growing up, I was fascinated by airplanes, specifically how such a heavy object could ‘fly’. Through studying mathematics and physics, I began to answer my own questions. My inquisitive nature drew me to the sciences. Studying the sciences for me was never a burden but an exciting hobby. When I was heading into further education picking just one field was extremely difficult. Data Science at the time was a very new field. Eventually, I decided to study Mathematics and Physics for my bachelor’s degree and that’s when I found my passion for astrophysics and cosmology. After graduating I chose to continue my studies and complete a Doctorate degree, where I studied Bayesian techniques applied in Astrophysics.
During this time, I was challenged by critics about ‘making it in the industry.’ As someone who was studying statistics applied in astrophysics, which is such a niche subject, people would tell me that I would never find a good job and that I was wasting my time. I chose to prove them wrong and used those negative comments as motivation. This is the advice I find helps the most. For those young girls now, who want to enter the field, do not let other people’s perceptions of what you can accomplish determine what you can do with your mind and career.
Role models, awareness, and education are all key to getting more women into STEM, while flexibility within the workplace is key to retaining women in the workforce. I am lucky enough to work for a company that is passionate about highlighting women in tech and STEM. As a woman in STEM, I feel I have a responsibility to educate and inspire the next generation of STEM by attending events, empowering others, and sharing my story. By talking about my experience in STEM it gives meaning to my journey as opposed to the destination.
Learn more about GirlsinICT here.
Here at Concirrus, we’re always on the lookout for talented individuals to join the team. Head over to our careers page to see if any of our open roles would be a great fit for you.