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The arts can bridge the gender gap in the workplace. By Enid Lizamore
Recent estimates show that, if women’s participation in labour markets in the Middle East and Africa equalled that of men’s, the regional GDP could rise by 47% over the next decade, making an economic impact of $600 billion. However, women still face challenges entering the workforce, and the unemployment rate for women in some countries in the region is as high as 40%.

Gender discrimination aside, unemployment can exist because of a skills gap between first-time job seekers and employers. At the same time, the world is changing in the digital age, and so are career opportunities. Many of today’s students will end up working in jobs that don’t exist yet, and with the Fourth Industrial Revolution driven by digital and smart technology, the demand for skills in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (otherwise known as STEM) is on the rise.

With this in mind, it is essential to upskill youth, and particularly young women, and ignite an interest in STEM, so they learn the computational and problem-solving skills critical for finding employment or becoming successful entrepreneurs.

Impact of empowering women

There is significant gender disparity in STEM fields globally, with only 16% of female students graduating from STEM subjects, according to the World Economic Forum. While the Middle East is making strides in closing this gap, with women making up 30% to 70% of the enrollees in computer science programmes, in African countries like Kenya and South Africa, women only make up 15% and 18% of the ICT workforce, respectively.

Today more than ever, we are acutely aware of the need to close the gender gap in the technology industry and in all STEM fields. Women’s representation in these fields is not only a matter of fairness, but our economies and societies also lose out when we fail to engage half of the world’s brainpower in our engines of innovation.

So it’s essential that we create a culture where more women are attracted to STEM fields. That’s why Microsoft started a movement, inspiring girls, as well as the parents, educators and nonprofits who encourage and support them, to #MakeWhatsNext. Not only does this open up opportunities for careers in the technology industry, but in our increasingly digital world, STEM skills also offer a leg up for those wanting to become researchers, consultants, business managers, teachers and many more.

Introducing the arts to Maths and Science

One of the most positive steps on the path to encouraging women to study STEM subjects is the shift to add art and design to STEM, to form STEAM.

Innovation has been strongly associated with Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. However, Art and Design are poised to transform our economy in the 21st century, just as Science and Technology did last century. This is because, even though the digital revolution is driven by technology, we are going to have to think more creatively to get the most out of technology.

So, how does this link to gender equality?

At the most basic level, there is the perception that women tend to be naturally attracted to the more creative careers. Beyond this, there tends to be a student engagement problem in terms of the diversity in the STEM fields. STEAM addresses this by using the Arts as an on-ramp to STEM for under-represented students. It uses design methods to approach STEM subjects creatively and make them realworld- relevant to all students, not just those already interested in Mathematics and Science.

Transforming the economy and creating gender equality

Not everyone will want to – or should go into – STEM fields, but the point is to reach those who could contribute to these fields but are turned off by a difficult Mathematics class, a boring Biology class or not seeing other women represented in the world of STEM. This speaks closely to the purpose behind #MakeWhatsNext, which is to shift cultural norms and challenge girls to stay in STEM so they are empowered to solve the problems they care about most, from finding solutions to climate change, to curing cancer.

Ultimately, STEAM is people-centric, not subject-centric; it puts student personality and individuality at the forefront. Bringing art into the mix is about sparking female – and all – students’ imagination, and helping them learn to innovate by applying creative thinking and design skills to STEM subjects. This unlocks a variety of new ways to use STEM skills in adulthood, whether seeking employment or starting a new business.

It’s not about stereotyping women as not having the capability to take part in the world of STEM as it stands. Rather, it’s about finding a way to make what are becoming essential 21st century skills, as accessible to as many different types of people as possible, by creating diverse opportunities to learn. And by doing this, we are empowering women to achieve as much as possible, to bridge the gender gap in the world of work.

Enid Lizamore is the Head of HR at Microsoft SA, www.microsoft.com.

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