Paris: No one disputes these days that STEM remains mostly a man’s world. Much has been written about the male geek culture that dominates Silicon Valley and other technology hubs. But numerous voices are now being heard on how this perception is changing, and needs to change.

“This is one of the most important issues of our time, and it is urgent,” said Lindsey Nedesh-Clarke, founder of W4, an organisation that promotes girls and women in technology. “It has nothing to do with cognitive abilities, that has been proven. It is about consistent, deeply entrenched stereotypes.”

only 9 %

of apps are created by women

The stubborn gap between men and women in STEM is evident from an early age, and continues through university to the workplace, according to “Bridging the Digital Gender Divide,” a report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development released in October last year.

The study found that in the developed world, women account for just 25 per cent of graduates in information and communications technology, and 24 per cent in engineering - even though women outnumber men in graduate schools overall.

According to a 2017 Unesco report, female student enrollment is particularly low in information and communications technology at 3 per cent. It is 5 per cent in natural science, mathematics and statistics and 8 per cent in manufacturing and construction. The highest is in health and welfare at 15 per cent.

What are the implications of this gap?

The implications of a digital gender divide multiply on the global scale. Most of the 3.9 billion people in the world who are offline are women; in Africa, only 12 per cent of women are online and in the developing world, women’s access to the internet is 25 per cent below that of men.

Just 6 %

of popular open-source programming language for data analysis

As jobs change around the world, technology - and the flexibility it promises - could offer women a chance to choose how, when and where they work. But these opportunities are lost without the skills to access them, which is why many said at the global women’s forum, that giving women the skills to master technology is a social, moral and economic necessity.

“Fixing that is the right thing to do,” said Alexandra Estanislao, 31, originally from Venezuela, also wanted to be a doctor but got a degree in mathematics and finance at a top French engineering school, and she is now a software engineer at Google in Paris.

The time to encourage girls to develop an interest in math and sciences is between ages 11 and 15, said Shelley McKinley, general manager for technology and corporate responsibility at Microsoft. She cited a recent study conducted in the United States that showed the gap in interest in STEM fields between boys and girls increased from 6.1 to 9.4 per cent in those years.

“What the study found is that girls want more role models,” McKinley said. “Where are the women STEM teachers? Girls are more interested in hands-on experience; they want to see the life applications of what they are learning. We need to focus on this.”

Macho Mexico is changing its ways

Angel Gurria, secretary-general of the OECD, said a recent effort in his native Mexico - “macho Mexico” as he put it - to expose girls in high schools to celebrated women in science and technology has had a positive affect. But, he acknowledged, fighting stereotypes is an uphill battle.

Only 10 %

of innovative startups were founded by women.

“They happen naturally, starting in families,” he said. “Parents often don’t have enough information. We are fighting centuries and centuries of tradition and culture.”

One answer, some experts say, is to encourage paternity leave after the birth of a child, which allows new mothers to keep working, and the men to become more involved in family life and to offer their daughters in particular another role model at home.

Get them and make them stay: why women quit a hostile environment

Attracting girls and women to STEM studies is just one issue. Another, perhaps more significant, is encouraging them to stay the course. “It is all about retention,” Estanislao said. “It is useless to bring in women if you can’t keep them.”

According to Nefesh-Clarke, more than 50 per cent of women in information and communications technology, or ICT, leave, mainly because of a hostile environment. That helps explain why women hold only 3 per cent of the top management jobs in ICT, she said.

“We can’t just address the external pipeline,” she said later. “We have to address the internal pipeline, and why it is leaking. What is it about the culture of ICT that makes women not want to stay?”

According to a study by the Center for Talent Innovation, women in tech jobs in the US leave the field at a 45 per cent higher rate than men. Only 27 per cent in one survey cited family as a primary reason for leaving.