Supporting girls in STEM – Efforts and insights from Politecnico di Milano

The project POP: Equal Opportunities at PoliMI coordinates all the efforts on EDI, acting both on the PoliMI population, i.e., students, faculty and administrative staff, and on society at large. Its broader aims are to foster the promotion of STEM studies for girls and to involve companies and public administration in an effort to establish a more inclusive society.
5th November 2021
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Photo credit: Picture by Franco Forci

In the last few years, Politecnico di Milano (PoliMI) has started significant activities in the field of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI). In 2018, the project POP: Equal Opportunities at PoliMI was launched to coordinate all the efforts on EDI, acting both on the PoliMI population, i.e., students, faculty and administrative staff, and on society at large. It acts across different diversity dimensions: gender, culture, sexual-orientation, disabilities and mental health, collecting and designing all the efforts that are made to support EDI at large, which are supported by significant and structural budget allotments.

Its broader aims are to foster the promotion of STEM studies for girls and to involve companies and public administration in an effort to establish a more inclusive society.

To achieve a 50:50 participation of female and males in STEM studies we need to overturn long-lasting and pervasive stereotypes, which is not an easy endeavour, and universities alone cannot succeed without a strong and common societal effort.

The relationship between girls and STEM is widely studied across different disciplines, mainly related to social sciences. A central tenant of this literature is that barriers to STEM for women affect three crucial dimensions of the education path: (i) recruitment; (ii) persistence; and (iii) success, which occur both in education and in the career path, preventing women to access both levels, and, even for those who do, giving rise to the so-called ‘leaky pipeline’. The barriers are somehow similar along these three dimensions, but they may differently affect the outcomes.

Moreover, barriers can be grouped into three main classes, depending on the level at which they originate: individual, contextual, and macro-level. The context-level is the environment in which girls and young women are immersed in their daily life; in particular their family, their school and their community. The macro-level encompasses the formal and informal institutions of girls’ countries (or regions) of residence, including the national culture and societal values, habits, and norms. Clearly, both levels strongly interplay with the individual one, which is highly affected by societal paradigms.

With this complexity in mind, PoliMI decided to take concrete steps in the promotion of equal opportunities, engaging both internal and external stakeholders. To better focus the actions, this social programme was paired with a data gathering and analysis phase, culminating in the publication of the Gender Budget, now in its third edition. The Gender Budget shows that PoliMI has significant female under-representation among engineering students, with approximately a 70:30 share, while Architecture and Design have full gender parity, and in some cases even over-representation of female students.

Irrespective of their proportion, female students have similar, if not better, academic careers than their male counterparts, characterised by a lower dropout and higher average grades. Unfortunately, they meet a not-so-welcoming first experience at the workplace, to which they access in large proportions, in this respect similar to those of males, but with lower shares of permanent positions and, most relevantly, a pay-gap which is present as early as twelve months after graduation.

The Gender Budget also looks at faculty and administrative staff, finding slow but constant progress in female representation, but always with the ‘leaky-pipeline’ in action that still determines vertical segregation when moving to the top of the career ladder.

The work on the Gender Budget paved the way for the preparation of the Gender Equality Plan, which, starting January 2022, is compulsory for accessing EU funds, currently under formal approval, and which formulates the general gender and EDI policy of our university, together with the detailed and concrete action plan to support it.

As far as students are concerned, PoliMI has recently launched a scholarship programme, Girls@PoliMI, where both publicly and privately funded grants are available to girls who enrol in those engineering courses that have the lowest female participation (mostly those of the areas of industrial and ICT engineering), fully paying their bachelor studies, covering university fees and a monthly allowance for supporting life in Milan for off-site students.

Other concrete actions exist to support female careers, such as paying nursery fees to students, Ph.D. candidates and young researchers who become parents, and providing research funding to young mothers (and fathers) who return from maternity/paternity leave.

Besides the support of work/life balance, PoliMI is working on a ‘humanisation’ of the engineering curricula, proposing ad hoc courses co-designed by experts of social sciences and technical disciplines, to answer the need for a diversification of competencies. This is needed to address the complex challenges of human-centric technologies, but also to respond to a more diverse educational offer that is known to be particularly attractive for girls.

Finally, in recent years PoliMI has supported the creation of concrete research activities that could value the existing competencies and put them to service for advancing EDI principles and values. To do this, in 2018 a new trans-disciplinary research group was approved by the Rector, dedicated to gender equality, diversity and inclusion, looking both at teaching and research issues. Topics of ongoing activities are the development of technology tools for EDI, such as automatic scoring methods for assessing gender parity in firms considering different dimensions, and an analysis tool for the automatic exploration of written language to underscore traits of gender stereotypes and biases.

At the teaching level, the research group will work to design appropriate contents to promote gender education from the early school stages, to build in young people a strong awareness of social rights and the need to affirm and defend these rights as a part of each citizen’s actions. We hope that such a research centre that mixes research and education on gender issues with a strong focus on quantitative analysis will be able to cross-fertilise these two aspects, creating a unique setting to achieve significant and tangible results and attract diverse young research talent blending technological skills with social values.

Mara Tanelli
Professor of Automatic Control at Politecnico di Milano and Member of the Steering Committee of POP: Equal Opportunities at PoliMI


Mara shared more about the experiences from PoliMi at one of our recent EDI.Labs and you can find the video recording here (log in required). If you do not yet have log in details, then you are invited to create them by completing this form.

EDI.Lab is our online seminar series for sharing best practices in Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI). All staff at our Member universities are invited to participate in our EDI.Labs, and if you are a staff at one of our Member universities and you do not yet have access to our Extranet, then you are invited to complete this form to get access.

For more information about our EDI.Labs, please contact our Senior Advisor for Research & Innovation Mattias Björnmalm.

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