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Dutch girls in STEM held back by persistent gender bias

Gender stereotyping is leading to low numbers of women working in science, technology, engineering and maths sectors

More and more Dutch girls are opting for a science subject cluster at secondary school, choosing subjects such as mathematics, physics and chemistry. Nevertheless, the number of women working in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) roles remains alarmingly low in the Netherlands, compared with surrounding countries. This is partly because gender stereotyping is deeply rooted in Dutch culture. 

Figures from Dienst Uitvoering Onderwijs (DUO), an agency of the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, show that just over 27% of Dutch girls chose a science subject cluster in 2021. That is almost a quarter more than five years ago. Yet more boys – almost 40% – choose such a science cluster in secondary education in the Netherlands.

According to Sahar Yadegari, director at VHTO, the Dutch expertise centre for gender diversity in STEM and IT, the rise in the number of girls choosing STEM subjects means the efforts of various organisations to make engineering and technology more attractive to girls are paying off.

However, she pointed out that “there needs to be in-depth research into exactly what efforts have led to these results”.

Decision moments in education

That many efforts are being made is beyond dispute. The Netherlands has a history of countless government campaigns calling on girls and women to set their sights on STEM. Nevertheless, Yadegari still sees plenty of room for improvement, because female participation in STEM jobs remains low in The Netherlands.

“There are many different decision moments in the school career of Dutch children,” she said. “One of those moments is the choice of subject cluster they have to make. Research shows that the younger children are when making that choice, the more inclined they are to make a gender-stereotypical one. The older they get, the more freedom they feel to explore their own interests.”

At vocational schools, Dutch children choose their profile in the second year. In pre-university education, however, children make this choice in the third year, and also have more years before deciding their university path. “That explains the big difference in the number of girls opting for a science subject cluster. The percentage is much higher at pre-university level,” said the VHTO director

The next decision point is when Dutch girls have to make a subsequent study choice. A lot of information material, open days, and the mindset of technical universities and universities of applied science are still geared towards boys.

“Unfortunately, very little has changed in this respect in recent years,” said Yadegari. “Although the pool of technical talent in secondary education has increased, the higher education institutions in the Netherlands are not able to tap into this increased pool because they are not focusing on the target group outside their traditional scope.”

The girls who do opt for a technical study programme by no means all end up in technical professions. This is often because they did not feel at home in that environment during their studies, states Yadegari. Women on technical courses are often one of the few, and not uncommonly have to deal with misplaced or unwanted jokes or persistent opinions about their gender in combination with the course they are following.

“Moreover, for many girls, their education lacks a long-term perspective,” added Yadegari. “For example, they have little contact with female IT professionals who have made it big and combined their careers with a family life. Those examples do exist, but they are not visible enough.”

Gender bias in the workplace

Another hurdle is that future employers still tend to be gender biased, which is why careers fairs for technical jobs in the IT sector often focus on the traditional image of a developer: someone who likes to wear T-shirts, lives on pizza and RedBull, and codes as a hobby in the attic.

“Stereotypical images are very strongly brought into Dutch study environments by companies. As a woman, that is not an attractive perspective,” said Yadegari.

“Only when women feel safe and valued, don’t have to pretend to be something they’re not, and there are no unwanted and inappropriate signals or behaviour, can you prevent them from leaving [tech]”

Sahar Yadegari, VHTO

Even when Dutch women do eventually end up in a technical position, some drop out after a while. “Many companies are simply not ready yet. They do want women on board, but those women have to be ‘one of the guys’. In addition, many companies find it difficult to acknowledge that gender bias exists, even for them,” she said.

“Only when women feel safe and valued, don’t have to pretend to be something they’re not, and there are no unwanted and inappropriate signals or behaviour, can you prevent them from leaving.”

Although the proportion of girls opting for STEM subjects in secondary education is growing, this loss of women at various points in their career journey puts the Netherlands somewhere at the bottom of overviews of the number of women employed in STEM positions.

“Research has been done into the relationship between gender stereotypes about STEM and the participation of women in STEM. What did it show? In the Netherlands, that relationship is very strong,” said Yadegari.

“We score very high on our ideas about what suitable sectors are for men and women, and very low on the proportion of women in technical branches. This means we have a lot of work to do, especially in terms of image, to get technology and IT out of the male domain and into the human domain as an area where an incredible number of exciting things are happening for the future of our society.”

There are several organisations in the Netherlands that focus on gender diversity in technology, but VHTO is the longest-standing and best-known. The organisation does various things to reduce gender bias in the Netherlands.

Move away from gender stereotyping

The environment of Dutch children, such as family and school, plays an important role in gender stereotyping, Yadegari argued. “We are quick to say that girls are better at caring and that technology is really something for boys. But in doing so, we are curtailing potential of both boys and girls. If you always hear that something is not for you, you lose the confidence to be able to make it your own,” she said.

That is why VHTO gives workshops at schools, for example. These workshops are always given by female role models. The organisation has a database of more than 2,000 women working in STEM in the Netherlands. “That way, girls can identify themselves, and that’s crucial because you can’t become something you don’t see.”

In addition to interventions at an individual level, VHTO also wants to make school environments more gender-inclusive at a system level by making teachers and schools more aware of persistent prejudices and how they create invisible barriers for female students and pupils.

“We work with girls in education to increase their self-confidence in IT and technology, so they have a better chance of discovering their interests,” said the VHTO director.

Technology belongs to all of us

The importance for the Netherlands to get more women into STEM is evident from Yadegari’s personal drive of ambition in this area.

“Technology, and certainly IT, is too important for our society to not let a very large part of it sit at the controls. Technology is not neutral. People make choices when it comes to technology and IT, and those choices have an impact on our society. I think users should have a say in what kind of technology should be in our society,” she said.

“My ultimate dream is for our technology sector to become much more diverse, possibly leading to technological developments that will benefit us much more than we can currently imagine.”

 

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