Women and STEM? An increasingly concrete combination

11 February 2022

Interview with Samantha Morrison, Ethics & Compliance Head Italy at Philip Morris International

On 11 February, the International Day of Women and Girls in Science is celebrated all over the world.

This is an event established by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015 with the aim of promoting initiatives to foster full gender equality in the sciences. A need that originates from the observation that the gender gap in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects is still too wide and often due to prejudices and gender stereotypes that penalize women since childhood.

Suffice it to say that, according to AlmaLaurea’s 2022 report Female and Male Graduates: Professional Choices, Experiences, and Accomplishments, even though they have similar or even higher outcomes than the male component at age 15, women are 69.3% less likely to graduate in a STEM degree program than men. Indeed, in the 2020/21 academic year, women enrolled in STEM degree programs were 21%, while men were double that number (42%; MUR-USTAT, 2021c).

It is a result consistent with AlmaLaurea data, according to which, among female graduates in 2020, 18.9% obtained a degree in STEM pathways, while among men the percentage was 39.2%. A recent survey (OECD-PISA, 2018) highlighted how, gender-wise, women’s performance is better than men’s in reading (in Italy women’s advantage in reading is 25%, in the OECD the average is 30%), but it’s lower in mathematics (in Italy 16% gap in favor of men, 5% in relation to the average of OECD countries). In science, men and women achieve similar results in Italy, while in other OECD countries women perform slightly better. This scenario highlights how the gender gap in mathematics can have strong implications on the choice of school and university orientation, suggesting the influence of implicit stereotypes, i.e., behaviors that girls and boys unconsciously enact (INVALSI, 2021). Even in postgraduate education there is a low concentration of women in STEM fields: in 2016, among those who held a PhD in ICT the share of women was 25%, in engineering, manufacturing and construction 37% and in natural science, mathematics and statistics 53% (European Commission, 2019).

On the occasion of the 7th International Day for Women and Girls in Science, we asked Samantha Morrison, Ethics & Compliance Head Italy at Philip Morris International and newly elected Co-President of the BBS Alumni Association, to give us her perspective as a graduate in Mathematics with a Masters in Accounting and Finance.

Let’s start with some data. According to a Save the Children report among high-achieving students in science subjects, only 1 in 8 girls expects to work as an engineer or in scientific professions, compared to 1 in 4 among males. To what extent do culture, education, prejudices and models learned in the family affect this expectation?

In my view, both the family and the external environment can affect children’s ambitions both positively and negatively. If a girl is lucky to have parents who educate her to believe she can do whatever she wants to do, she has a head start compared to girls who grow up being told that men are engineers and women are teachers. Social norms, education and culture can have exactly the same effect. I was lucky to be taught that, with some hard work, I could do anything I wanted to do. I chose to study mathematics simply because I was good at it and I liked it and although I do not currently work in a scientific field, my STEM education gave me a forma mentis that has helped me throughout my career. 

In terms of leadership, in the STEM world what is your perception with respect to the gender gap? Is there a prejudice against women when it comes to competing for an important role in science?

Unfortunately, data shows that there is clearly a gender gap in the STEM world and some of this can definitely be explained by prejudice. But this is changing, and I believe it will continue to change at a faster pace. “Women in STEM” is one of many great initiatives globally that can help narrow this gap and help promote the full potential of women in the scientific sector. I see more and more examples of great women in senior STEM positions demonstrating that it can be done very successfully. I think this should give us all hope that the professional world is becoming more balanced with less gender discrimination. We are not there yet, a lot more work needs to be done but… I really think we can be optimistic that things are changing for the better.  For example, where I work, in Philip Morris Manufacturing & Technology, the Leadership Team is made up of over 50% of women, many of whom are engineers or have a scientific background and the company has obtained the Equal Salary certification which verifies that it pays its female and male employees equally for the same job.

Congratulations on your appointment as Co-President of the BBS Alumni Association! What are your expectations and goals for this new endeavor?

Thank you! I was lucky to have two great predecessors, Pinar and Paola (another woman in STEM as she’s an Engineer), who had the challenging job of leading the first year of the Association and laying the foundations for us to build upon.  Although we are still in the start-up phase, we already have a lot of plans for 2022. 

One of our main goals for this year is to continue the growth of the Association both in Italy and internationally. Following the creation of several local chapters in Italy, we are now promoting the foundation of international chapters in some of the main cities world-wide with BBS alumni. We are also planning to enhance the offer of webinars and events for our Alumni to provide networking and personal development opportunities for our members. 

All of this thanks to the support of the Co-presidents, the Board of Alumni members and of course, BBS.

What advice would you give to a 15-year-old girl, who’s a STEM enthusiast and dreams of a future in science or math?

Believe in your dreams! What is stopping you? You are the future! Lots of progress is being made and I am confident that by the time a 15-year-old today finishes her education, gender gaps in STEM, or anywhere else, will be a thing of the past. Positive change in inclusion and diversity is accelerating, women in STEM are a fundamental part of this evolution! 


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