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Biases keep Dutch girls out of STEM and IT
Unconscious stereotypes and bias still ensure few girls in the Netherlands choose to study engineering or IT. Government, education and businesses need to make significant steps to turn this around
The Dutch gender diversity expertise centre for science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), VHTO, organised the first Girls’ Day 13 years ago to introduce girls to these subjects at a young age and address the severe underrepresentation of women in the IT sector.
This is a specific day each year on which girls aged between 10 and 15 visit companies in STEM and IT. This year, over 9,000 girls from more than 200 schools participated, visiting over 250 companies. “Last year, about 6,500 girls participated, so this is a significant increase,” said Sahar Yadegari, director of VHTO.
This shows a gradual bounce back from a slump that occurred after 2020, when Girls’ Day was cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Before the pandemic, there were as many as 10,000 applications.
Not only is Girls’ Day necessary to introduce more diversity in technical fields, but it also aims to reduce the acute shortage of people with a technical background, said Marieke Snoep, chief of business market at Dutch telco KPN.
“In our own organisation, there are very few female mechanics, for example. We therefore find it extremely important to introduce girls and boys to a technical profession in an appealing way,” said Snoep. “The interest in this starts in primary education, so it is important to motivate children at an early age and no longer make a distinction between boys and girls.”
Sandra Wasseur, Oracle
Unconscious prejudice still plays a significant role in the Netherlands, not just in education, but also among parents. Sandra Wasseur, dynamic marketer at Oracle, pointed to a study by VHTO.
“This involved asking advice from education professionals about a fictitious pupil who is unsure about a technical profile. This pupil’s name was sometimes Anouk and sometimes Thomas,” said Wasseur. “I was shocked to learn that Thomas received positive advice for a technical choice almost twice as often as Anouk. Parents and schools need to become much more aware they are still conveying unconscious biases.”
Making IT appealing
Diana Smith, business development partner at IT company Kyndryl, thinks the sector’s image is primarily to blame. “IT still has a stuffy and nerdy image. That’s why it’s so important to show girls that you can actually do really cool things with it.”
This is a reason for almost every participating organisation to take part in Girls’ Day. For example, the girls visiting Cisco on Girls’ Day this year were taken to Nike. “This way, we can show the girls what role technology plays in fashion, for example,” said Hein Dekkers, director of digital acceleration in the Netherlands at Cisco.
“Last year, we took a group of girls to the Rijksmuseum to show them how Rembrandt’s The night watch is scanned. Showing concrete applications contributes enormously to the girls’ perception.”
Diana Smith, Kyndryl
Lisa Klein, a software engineer at Q42, agreed: “I never set out to be a software developer, but when I was introduced to it on my communication and multimedia design course, I realised it was so much cooler than I’d ever thought.”
She has noticed a change in the girls who visit Q42 during Girls’ Day. “Not all of them, of course, because everyone has their own preferences, but I speak to a number of girls every year who tell me that they initially thought it would be very boring, but now they think it’s super fun,” said Klein.
Education must embrace digitisation
VHTO director Yadegari hopes Girls’ Day will no longer exist in 10 years’ time. “I hope, by then, we as a society will no longer associate engineering and technology with men by default, but that it will be just as logical for girls and women to choose that direction.”
There is still a lot of work to be done to reach that situation, however.
“Although women were initially at the forefront of IT, in 2023, only 22% of all tech jobs in Europe are filled by women, with that number in the Netherlands a shocking 17%,” said Remco den Heijer, director at SAS Benelux. “We need to offer girls and women role models and start actively convincing them of the fun and interesting aspects of tech professions.”
Moreover, it is also essential to familiarise teachers with technology, according to VHTO’s Yadegari. “Especially in primary schools, where the majority of teachers are women who don’t all feel comfortable with technology. They convey that feeling – unconsciously – to young girls. Therefore, it is crucial that both female and male teachers become comfortable with using digital technology and feel they can transfer that to their students.”
Remco den Heijer, SAS Benelux
KPN’s Snoep agreed: “Our educational community views many technological developments with suspicion and fear. I want to call on everybody in education to embrace digitisation instead. Take ChatGPT, for example. Every school is terrified that students will write their papers using AI [artificial intelligence] and are trying to do everything they can to prevent or prohibit it.
“But why not let your students experiment with this AI and teach them to find the mistakes made by the system? That way, it lets them learn to think for themselves about what is real and what is fake while introducing them to the possibilities of technology.”
Call for a new government campaign
There is also an essential role for the government to make technical study choices and professions more logical and attractive to girls, according to Oracle’s Wasseur. “We know we are short of a huge number of people in a sector that is crucial to our future. That means we need to start at the grassroots, with young girls, and make them aware that engineering is also suitable for them,” she said.
Meanwhile, digital literacy has officially gained a permanent place in the Dutch curriculum. Unfortunately, it will take time before all the teaching materials are ready and it is embedded in education. Yadegari spoke on Girls’ Day with primary and secondary education minister Dennis Wiersma, who was on a working visit to technical services provider Kuijpers in De Meern.
Sahar Yadegari, VHTO
“The government needs to play an accelerating role in countering gender stereotypes in engineering education,” said Yadegari.
Moreover, there is also a task for the industry itself, because even in engineering and IT, stereotype communication is commonplace, although often not even consciously. “There are companies presenting themselves as ‘move fast, break things’, or using only pictures of men in almost all their communication,” said Yadegari. “As an industry, we need to do much more to become more attractive to women.”
But the industry has made strides in this regard, according to Kyndryl’s Smith. “I have come across more and more women in technical positions in recent years. Having more women in an organisation also enhances the atmosphere for other women. So, it is not only important to attract women, but it can also help you retain your female talent,” she said.
Asked about their ideal image in 10 years’ time, almost all organisations were unanimous: an equal distribution of men and women in the workplace and in technical professions.
Yadegari shares this ambition. “I think Girls’ Day will certainly remain necessary for a few more years, but hopefully, we can make significant strides, both in government and in the education and technology sectors, in the coming years so that it will eventually become obsolete.”
Read more about girls in Dutch tech
- Gender stereotyping is leading to low numbers of women working in science, technology, engineering and maths sectors.
- The Netherlands needs to shake up its education system to attract more girls into IT, as only 10% of its IT workforce is women.
- There’s a shortage of IT professionals in the Netherlands, but the skills gap can be bridged by attracting further women to the sector.