Hairdresser? Great.
Engineer? Also Great.

Since the 1980s, the number of women in STEM careers has decreased in Spain by 24%. Why? We reflect on this manifestation of the gender gap that United Way Spain combats in collaboration with large technology companies. 

Studying is a path full of questions and answers. There is one question that everyone faces at some point in childhood: What do you want to be when you grow up? The answer always provokes a game of raised eyebrows, averted eyes and a certain humming that provides some margin until you come up with a specific list of professions that you have seen at home, on TV, in toys or at school.

In the field of secondary education, according to its professionals, the verbalization of doubt is frequent: What do I want to do for work? No idea. But there are cases in which the doubt also implies a troubling denial, such as when adolescents are presented with the range of professional opportunities of the future, and they respond forcefully: I don’t know if I see myself in that technology thing.

In the 21st century, there are many young women who continue to have a vision of their professional future that is not associated with being in control of determining how things work. Perhaps that is why the number of female students in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers is decreasing and, however, care trades such as hairdressing, beauty or nursing continue to be a recurring choice among adolescent women, especially in vulnerable communities. There is nothing to object against these trades but, this trend begs the question: Should we be concerned that the female presence in technical and technological careers is receding?

Esperanza Martín, one of the social intervention professionals in whom United Way Spain entrusts its education programs, gives us a few keys. To start, an objective fact: to give up technology is to give up a huge percentage of employment opportunities. We live in a world filled with technology and the mantra that half of the professions of the future have not yet been invented is becoming more and more evident. “Technology is in everything and the new generations must, at the very least, learn to use it,” says Esperanza.

In the workshops conducted for the United Way, such as the recent TechMujeres in an institute of Madrid, they use a rebuttal to combat the dead end of “I’m not going to do that wel.l” The response changes the question and removes some of the weight placed on the person who must answer it: What would you like to improve?

This initiates a change of perspective of their own capacity for mobility. Starting with the educational center; sometimes it is a beverage machine for the high school corridor, other times a CO2 meter to ensure breathable air in the classroom, other times it engages in less common subjects such as technological art or electronic music. The key is to identify a need associated with their day-to-day life and go through the steps that technology offers them to build a solution. Testing, “tinkering”. In this manner the center’s teaching staff and a number of volunteers from large companies such as Cellnex or NTT Data actively participate in this journey, completing the point of view, offering precise data and, above all, showing a very clear horizon of where this exercise can lead them professionally.

With the thread of their idea for change they weave debate, reflection and learning until they develop a simple prototype. And it is just at that point when they are asked the most important question: Who wants to exhibit their project? The workshops coordinated by United Way Spain include a staging —often in the offices of the companies that provide their corporate volunteers— which is crucial to cement this new vision of the participants about themselves. Esperanza insists that all students are helped with any lack of confidence or discomfort that have with a public presentation. She describes, “no one is neglected because of their gender;” but the fact is that female students tend to have greater difficulties and, most surprisingly, they continue to present in a very different manner when their male classmates are not present.

Luckily and surprisingly, when asked what they got out of the workshop students answer: knowing that I can. In principle, they refer to working a technological job, but the phrase also carries over into other areas of self-confidence. And that is exactly the reason for our work. As if it were a precise mechanism, we verify again and again the real and effective impact of the technological activities, in which United Way involves companies, teachers and social entities, to generate a spark in the minds of those who are starting their life careers.

We would love to have a clear answer to the question of the implications of the decline of women in STEM careers. There are discourses that advise linking technology with the common good and sustainability to attract more women. There are those who point to the lack of role models of female scientists or engineers as the basis of the problem. The digital divide has also been identified as a determining factor, as those who do not have access to computers, a mobile phone or internet connection are at a disadvantage (this common among women from vulnerable communities).

In any case, the idea is not to encourage the use of technology for its own sake, but rather the opposite: to promote a critical awareness of technology, for which knowledge and participation without barriers are essential.  

Although we may not notice it because it is not always visible, things like BIG DATA and artificial intelligence affect and will affect one hundred percent of the sectors of life (including hairdressers, beauty centers and hospitals). That is why we must prepare the new generations, whatever they may be, so that they can participate in the design of the future and create a society that does not diminish opportunities for anyone.

The feminist perspective —increasingly intersectional and detached from gender itself— is essential to properly define the questions and answers from which society is built. Why would it be less important in the technological field? 

Interested in learning more about the educational projects of United Way Spain?