"We can cultivate a 'can do' attitude."
Tatjana Kecojević is a member of the Regional Network of Women in STEM in the Western Balkans. The interview below was originally published in the national Serbian daily newspaper Blic. Kecojević expands on the importance of networking of women in these fields, but also on further directions of development and improvement of conditions and the position of women in STEM.
-What are the basic goals of the Regional Network of Women in STEM in the Western Balkans?
The Regional Network of Women in STEM was established with the support of UNDP and the Regional Cooperation Council about a year ago. The Regional Network of Women in STEM is a platform for open and strategic dialogue on the current situation, challenges and ways to promote gender equality in the Western Balkans. The goal of the network is to strengthen cooperation in the region, through discussions and joint regional programs in order to increase the number and participation of women who are educated and build careers in STEM fields. In this way, we want to contribute to reducing the gap between the representation of women and men in STEM professions, and creating opportunities for the economic empowerment of women, which benefits overall economic and social development. Ingrained patriarchal values and prejudices about women's and men's occupations and interests are obstacles to women's empowerment and gender equality in the Western Balkans, especially when it comes to science, technology, engineering, innovation and mathematics, which are traditionally considered male domains. The group of women gathered in the Regional Network is determined to work on overcoming these prejudices, as well as on removing other obstacles that prevent girls and women from seeking an education, working and advancing in these fields. The Regional Network of Women in STEM brings together women who have been educated and built careers in these fields and are aware of both the obstacles and the opportunities. Therefore, we are committed to finding practical and applicable solutions to removing barriers for future generations of women, but also to support colleagues who are facing similar problems in all countries of our region. The focus on gender equality is at the heart of the process of developing new programs and launching projects that offer such solutions. Our initiative seeks to develop mechanisms to support women to create, think critically and become leaders. We strive to provide sources of funding for programs through which these initiatives would be implemented.
-How important is it for women in STEM fields to network?
Women working in STEM-related occupations are in a significant minority compared to their male counterparts. They may feel isolated and underappreciated in such work environments. To create greater parity, it is essential that women have the opportunity to connect and support each other.
While the Regional Network recognizes the progress and success that individual women have made in existing work cultures and environments, it also recognizes the complexity of the situation that hinders women's career advancement, not only related to the delay of career development and advancement for motherhood or child and family care. There are numerous studies that point to the benefits of gender equality and inclusiveness within the work environment. Gender equality contributes to a more dynamic workplace culture, which implicitly calls into question many work environments dominated by gender segregation and patriarchal hierarchy. Unfortunately, this environment is still a reality in many companies and citizens’ associations of the Western Balkans. The mutual exchange of ideas, experiences, concepts and research should not be seen as a violation of conventions, but should be celebrated as a driver of innovation.
-What do we need to get women more involved in this field?
Although the level of gender equality has increased globally in the last few decades, challenges remain. Women are still underrepresented in management positions and in better paid positions and jobs. Gender inequality in the workforce became even more evident during the COVID-19 pandemic and has led to a significant step backwards in terms of achieving gender parity in occupations and under-employment of women. Unequal participation of women and men in household chores has disproportionately affected women's ability to earn and prosper economically.
At the same time, during the COVID-19 crisis, companies accelerated digital transformation as a key strategy for future survival and success. Analytics and automation are key to the successful digital transformation of companies of all sizes. The pandemic, seismic in its impact, has accelerated the need for efficient and rapid transformation strategies and at the same time highlighted the employment gap between women and men.
Even before the pandemic, organizations and companies struggled to recruit and retain people with the skills necessary to succeed in working with data. Part of the solution is to retrain the existing workforce into productive data analysis practitioners, an area closely related to STEM. Also, during the pandemic, it became even more apparent that companies would need to provide an inclusive framework that supports work-life balance and flexible working arrangements in order to gain a competitive advantage in the business environment. Such an approach attracts and retains talented people and makes it easier for women to access jobs that are not traditionally considered women's domain.
It would be highly desirable to introduce the certification of companies for gender equality standards and encourage the empowerment and career development of women in STEM. The certification would demonstrate the company's commitment to gender equality and transparency and contribute to the commitment to create a more equal and just society and culture.
In the Network, we have recognized STEM education as a lifeblood, which implies an integrated, interdisciplinary approach to learning and provides practical experience to students and the wider community. We believe that education in STEM should go beyond mere knowledge transfer. Instead, a mechanism is needed to enable students to think critically, to provide knowledge and skills for creative collaboration in problem solving, linking jobs, schools and communities, and regional economies. We all understand that in addition to encouraging more young women to pursue careers in STEM-related fields, the industry can and should do more. We have an obligation to support each other. It is the first step in the fight for impartiality and true empowerment of women and men. Gender equality and inclusiveness are drivers of innovation.
-In which direction and how fast could this field develop in the coming years?
The current disappointing representation of girls and women in STEM is rooted in the misconception that girls are "naturally" not problem-solvers and lack curiosity. This way of thinking is not acceptable, girls deserve equal access to education that prepares them for career opportunities in STEM industries and that enables them to actively participate in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Encouraging young women to pursue careers in STEM fields should start at an early age. By pointing out how STEM can be applied in different areas of life, educators can interest, guide, empower and encourage more female students to turn to mathematics, engineering, innovation, science, technology. This goal need not be limited to classrooms as informal learning programs can also raise awareness and stimulate interest in fields that may have been mistakenly considered unattainable or unsuitable for women. Encouraging interest in mathematics and science is the starting point, but it is also important to highlight the numerous achievements of women involved in science and technology industries.
Greater visibility of women who are successful in STEM can positively affect girls' perceptions of science and scientists. There are many inspiring stories, which can help girls understand the opportunities that STEM fields offer them, as a way to pursue a career filled with satisfaction.
Without the participation of women in STEM, a whole spectrum of talents, different perspectives and intellectual curiosity remains untapped, seriously limiting the potential of any endeavour. Take a moment to imagine the impact of women’s contribution to the environment, human rights, humanity, and more if their voices are heard better. By directing girls' commitment, empathy and creativity towards the opportunities that STEM careers offer, education workers have the opportunity to turn this vision of the future into reality.
Girls should be educated outside the framework of basic numerical literacy. They need an education that encourages participation in solving the complex challenges that the world faces. Covid-19 has accelerated many technological changes, but imagine how they could have been developed and improved if more women were involved in decision-making in the processes of technological evolution. We cannot allow ourselves to neglect the ingenuity and intellect of half the workforce! We in the Regional Network want to correct that, to give energy and motivate future generations of beginners.
We believe that informal learning programs are key to strengthening self-confidence and are the path to an essential understanding of STEM-related topics. By connecting those who want to pursue a career in science and technology with innovators and professionals working on practical projects, we can cultivate a "can do" attitude.