Attending the OECD and Spanish Presidency Conference on the Future of Girls in STE(A)M on 13 December in Madrid, Spain, Carlien Scheele covered gender stereotypes and concrete ways to encourage more girls to embrace STE(A)M subjects.

Dear ministers, dear colleagues, and dear guests,

I’m delighted to be here with you all today.

On the way here, I got talking to someone about this conference. And they asked me: why do we still have a problem getting more women in STE(A)M? The response I always give is that we are doing our best, but we can do so much better.

And we can start by getting more girls to study STE(A)M subjects in the first place.

Especially given where we stand in the green transition right now, and how much it depends on STE(A)M.

Before I begin on how the lack of women in STE(A)M has a negative effect on economic and social development and GDP growth… let’s step into our imagination.

The year is 2050. You’re all sat in this room exactly as you are now. (Well, perhaps you may look slightly different 25 years on.) 

You will be living and moving through a different world.

One where Europe will have reached climate-neutrality.

To get to this conference, you may have arrived in Madrid via carbon-neutral aircrafts landing at a zero-emission airport.

What does that look like? Well, a much more efficient and seamless passenger journey than ever before.

At check-in, facial recognition, AI and automation got your travel experience started on the right foot – because it was virtually uninterrupted.

Instead of waiting in endless queues, you sailed through security and immigration “tunnels” with biometric and “touchless” technology.

And while we’re talking about queues, there were none for the women’s toilets – finally. Because over time gender-responsive public space and design has finally caught up with how women and men have different private needs in the way they use this public space.

(I see many women smiling with impending relief at this one!)

Alternatively, you may have taken public transport – which now works for everybody’s mobility needs. And is clean, safe, affordable, easy-to-navigate and use. That all too familiar fear for safety – mostly felt by women – is not as alarming as it once was.

Now in this ideal world, I haven’t yet assigned what the conference you are attending in 2050 is about. But I know what it shouldn’t be about.

Which is how to get more women and girls in STE(A)M.

Because in this ideal world, we will have already achieved gender balance in STE(A)M education as well as in work.

Because the gender stereotypes, roles and norms holding back so much potential right now - will belong only in history books at that point in time.

OK, rewind. We are back in 2023.

Where we stand now, I believe is on the cusp of the climate revolution towards meeting our bold green goals as a continent.

Note that I am saying cusp. Not because innovation isn’t already underway and not because solutions for climate concerns aren’t already arriving.

But we are still on the cusp because we do not have enough women on board to help power the fullest potential of the green transition with a broad representation of diverse needs to ensure the transition is socially fair and just.

A transition which relies heavily on STE(A)M areas – which not enough girls are getting educated in because they are not effectively incentivised to take up STE(A)M subjects.

The talent, expertise and skills that women have, are not represented enough in STE(A)M areas and professions.

But evidence shows that women are no less capable than men. I have personally, as I’m sure you have, met women architects, engineers, scientists who possess incredible technical ingenuity and are leaders in their field.

But they are still an exception to the rule that men dominate such industries.

As an example – worldwide, we only have 6 % women pilots were even the share of women astronauts is at 11 %.

Moving onto EIGE’s 2023 Gender Equality Index, a tool for measuring the state of gender equality, it revealed a polarising reality.

Gender equality is the best it's ever been – since the inception of the Index 10 years ago. We are at 70.2 points out of 100 where 100 points means full Gender Equality.

Every victory should be celebrated – even if it’s offset by a troubling parallel...

The labour market today is as gender-segregated as it was 10 years ago, when the Index was first launched. 

But the world today is a very different place compared to a decade ago. We’ve seen an evolution – especially in jobs.

Today’s green transition is seeing a proliferation of green jobs. There is a high demand for new skills. 

But due to the existing labour market dynamics, women are at an unfair disadvantage for these newly emerging jobs.

Researchers have estimated that over the past seven years[1], 34% of jobs created in energy transition sectors are occupied by women in the EU-27.

There is no room for this level stagnation if the EU is to meet its bold target by 2050.

It’s a race against time.

And not forgetting, we have key milestones to hit along the way too.

By 2030, at least 100 European cities should be climate-neutral – among them Madrid and Vilnius, where EIGE is based.

If all talent is sat around the table, significant and sustainable economic growth awaits us.

With more girls studying and more women working in STE(A)M, it will lead to an improvement in GDP by 610-820 billion EUR in 2050.

But the reality is, not enough girls are graduating in STE(A)M subjects let alone entering STE(A)M areas.

Perhaps this is because they are not actively encouraged to embrace their interest in STE(A)M subjects. You may know of some girls yourselves.

This stereotype that women don’t have the natural capacity for STE(A)M subjects is internalised very young.

Educational choices continue to be shaped by gender stereotypes and continue to pose barriers to entry into STE(A)M sector careers.

In the EU, women account for only:

o             27 % of students in engineering, manufacturing and construction (LFS, 2020).

And gender stereotypes impact what boys choose to study just as much.  Attracting more boys to study education, health, welfare, humanities, and the arts should be among our priorities too. Currently only 21% of male students opt to study these subjects.

This gender segregation will lead to very uneven gains and costs of the green and digital transition.

Looking deeper into the energy transition, let’s turn to the renewable energy sector as an example:

Considerable growth has happened in the EU in recent years with the EU target adopted in 2019 having been raised in 2023.

It calls for 42.5% of the energy produced in the EU to come from renewable sources by 2030.

Such high ambitions will need to rely on a large workforce. This level of job creation calls for dynamic and innovative approaches to fill these jobs and build those skills.

And now for some promising inroads.

The European Commission’s Pact for Skills aims to foster upskilling and reskilling to support the green and digital transition, including through a large-scale renewable energy skills partnership[2].

One of the objectives of the partnership is to attract more women into renewable energy jobs[3].

And I would hope it doesn’t start and stop at just the entry point. Because getting more women on board is one thing, it is an entirely different challenge to keep women in these jobs.

It will be interesting to hear from representatives from the business sectors about ways to ensure workplaces are truly inclusive.

But, getting more women in STE(A)M areas requires a multi-pronged approach.

Where robust policy takes action alongside a drastic shift in how we perceive women and men in STE(A)M.

In conclusion, I truly hope that by 2050 the conversation around the lack of women in STE(A)M careers will be redundant. I hope that from now, we continue to engage in committed exchanges of good practices, solutions while building coalitions – just as we are set to do at this conference.

I want to see that initial projection of 2050 come true.

I hope that the pioneering green solutions we and our planet will be benefitting from in 2050, will have been through the hands (and minds) of many more women than what we see today. Because if the green transition, is not fair and inclusive with diverse perspectives, it risks furthering existing inequalities.

There’s so much we can learn from each other in this moment and beyond.

So I hope that you have come to this conference with many questions, and by the end of it, I hope you will leave with many insights and solutions.

Thank you.