Stepping up women’s STEM careers in infrastructure sectors

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Increasing the employment and advancement of women in infrastructure organizations is a win-win proposition and a key focus of the World Bank’s Energy Sector Management Assistance Program (ESMAP). For women, these sectors offer the potential of a substantial income while at the same time provides opportunities to design more inclusive infrastructure — key for the development of countries. Another benefit is that these women can serve as role models for other women.   Our report, accompanied by five case studies, describes ways to level the pathway for women entering into and progressing in science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) employment within the infrastructure sectors—energy and extractives; water; transport; and digital development.   What are the barriers? A metaphor often used for women’s underrepresentation in STEM careers is the “leaky pipeline.” Although girls often perform as well as or better than boys in math and science at the primary and secondary school levels, they are underrepresented in some STEM subjects, particularly engineering and computer science, at the tertiary level. Many girls who opt to study these subjects do not end up pursuing careers in related fields.   The report highlights examples of barriers, including biases employers hold about “masculine” and “feminine” work roles, as illustrated by prejudicial interview questions or expectations about women’s future childcare or care responsibilities.   Even when hired, women tend to face additional challenges that may cause them to leave. These challenges include time-intensive work pressures with limited flexibility; biases of coworkers; gender wage gaps; unaccommodating workplace facilities; and sexual harassment risks.   Finally, as women progress in their STEM careers, additional institutional barriers—lack of mentors, sponsors, professional networks, and quality training—can also limit their advancement.  What helps level the pathway?  •	Start with education: Removing gender biases in learning materials and strengthen

Increasing the employment and advancement of women in infrastructure organizations is a win-win proposition  and a key focus of the World Bank’s Energy Sector Management Assistance Program (ESMAP). For women, these sectors offer the potential of a substantial income while at the same time provides opportunities to design more inclusive infrastructure — key for the development of countries. Another benefit is that these women can serve as role models for other women.
 
Our report, accompanied by five case studies, describes ways to level the pathway for women entering into and progressing in science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) employment within the infrastructure sectors—energy and extractives; water; transport; and digital development. 

What are the barriers?
A metaphor often used for women’s underrepresentation in STEM careers is the “leaky pipeline.” Although girls often perform as well as or better than boys in math and science at the primary, secondary school levels, they are underrepresented in some STEM subjects, particularly engineering and computer science, at the tertiary level . Many girls who opt to study these subjects do not end up pursuing careers in related fields. 

The report highlights examples of barriers, including biases employers hold about “masculine” and “feminine” work roles, as illustrated by prejudicial interview questions or expectations about women’s future childcare or care responsibilities. 

Even when hired, women tend to face additional challenges that may cause them to leave. These challenges include time-intensive work pressures with limited flexibility; biases of coworkers; gender wage gaps; unaccommodating workplace facilities; and sexual harassment risks. 

Finally, as women progress in their STEM careers, additional institutional barriers—lack of mentors, sponsors, professional networks, and quality training—can also limit their advancement .

What helps level the pathway?

  • Start with education: Removing gender biases in learning materials and strengthening STEM curricula are critical, particularly in primary and secondary education. Hands-on experiences, design-based learning, and extracurricular STEM activities specifically for girls offer promise. For example, WomEng, a nonprofit organization in South Africa developed booklets about engineering programs and scholarship opportunities, also answers frequently asked questions about careers in engineering aimed at secondary school girls. 
  • Public and private sector entities can be more proactive in engaging potential STEM talent by providing scholarships, internships, and apprenticeships. In Lao People’s Democratic Republic, an Asian Development Bank project with the provincial water utilities provides scholarships for young women to study for water-related STEM careers, and provide them job opportunities when they graduate.
  • Remove legal roadblocks to recruitment: In recent years, Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kiribati, and Tajikistan have all reformed labor laws to eliminate some of the restrictions on women’s employment, for example, in jobs deemed arduous or hazardous, such as underground work. 
  • Inclusive policies such as quotas and targets can be effective and help change the numbers. When hiring, ensuring that merit as well as inclusion goals are considered in tandem can help to avoid backlash, stigmatization, and tokenism. Steps to counter gender discrimination and bias during the hiring process are helpful. For example, ensuring that all candidates undertake the same tests and are asked the same questions in the same order.
  • Design policies and workplaces that encourage retention: Globally, women are more likely to have care responsibilities at home. Flexible work and part-time employment options may help to reduce attrition and increase the number of women who enter and remain in the workforce over the long term . However, women who take advantage of them may still be overlooked for promotion, a situation that calls for increased attention. There may also be challenges implementing such actions given the nature of  infrastructure work (e.g. remote project sites and shift work.)
  • Addressing sexual harassment by developing complaint and redress mechanisms, also antiharassment and nondiscrimination policies and sanctions should be a top priority. The Solomon Islands Water Authority provides a good case study. With guidance from IFC, this utility developed policies to prevent and counteract bullying and sexual harassment, and also to address domestic violence among employees. Infrastructure entities can work with trade unions as in the case study of Ethiopian Electric Utility, where the labor union offers protection for women’s rights in the workplace, particularly concerning maternity leave.

Increasing action on women’s underrepresentation 
When tackling women’s underrepresentation in STEM, a crucial first step is initiating dialogue and building buy-in within the organizational leadership.  Leaders with a genuine understanding of the importance of women’s participation in the workforce can encourage others to take the goal of gender equality seriously. 

Other key actions include gathering sex-disaggregated data, conducting analyses, and developing an evidence base. An important next step is using this information to shape an action plan with specific objectives and targets. The summary note for Task Team Leaders at the World Bank should be a useful short guide to taking action on these issues. 

Lastly, closing large gender gaps in employment takes time and requires resources, but ultimately has many benefits both for employees and companies. 

For more information, see Stepping Up Women’s STEM Careers in Infrastructure: An Overview of Promising Approaches which is composed of three volumes: 

Join the Conversation

JUSTUS ALUKA
November 15, 2020

To ensure that enrollment of all children and transition rates improve in education and literacy in communities to drive change in the world

Matseliso Moremoholo
November 15, 2020

What a good opportunity for women and I am greatful.