Case Study: Why Europe’s girls aren’t studying STEM

A pan-regional campaign by Microsoft (client) to address gender diversity in education and careers

At Microsoft, a diverse workforce and robust talent pipeline are critical to the future of our business. But our current diversity demographics demonstrate that there is no easy path to driving systemic change. While we’ve made modest progress in some areas, representation of women employed at Microsoft declined by one percent in the past year, from 26.8 percent to 25.8 percent. In short, this is not where we want to be.

As a result, we have deepened our commitment to advancing and improving diversity and inclusion. As a starting point, to support real, long-lasting change we knew we had to gain a much deeper understanding of the factors impacting women’s decisions to pursue science and technology into higher education, and careers. We wanted to amass a rich body of research to define the biggest challenges we face in striving for gender parity, and in turn make well-informed changes to our company programs.

This is important because lack of diversity in technology is not just a Microsoft problem. It’s an issue that stymies growth of our industry as a whole. And while a lot of noise has been made about improving the situation for women and other minorities, there’s simply not been enough tangible insights leading to positive change.

Moreover, at a broader level, study after study has shown that diversity is a key driver of innovation and economic growth. When we encourage greater gender and ethnic equality, we help more countries to boost their competitiveness and productivity. Worryingly, today, in OECD countries, fewer than one in five computer science graduates are female — and of these, only 43% go on to pursue STEM-related careers. Solving this imbalance is becoming increasingly urgent. Europe could face a shortage of up to 900,000 skilled ICT workers by 2020 according to the European Commission. Without more women embracing STEM, the gap will continue to widen — and the next generation will lack critical skills needed to succeed in an innovation-based economy.

For all these reasons Microsoft Europe wanted to accelerate progress, take a leadership position in industry and policy discussions, and ultimately encourage more young women to pursue STEM.

We began with an intensive analysis of the root issues as to why gender inequality arises at school, undertaking a comprehensive review of all existing research published by corporates, NGOs and across academic fields of sociology, psychology and educational science. Scientific Journal Rankings and the Economic Research Institute were used to classify and rank the quality of the information.

Despite widespread debate and awareness of the issue, and plenty of assumptions, we found a critical deficit of actionable insight needed to inform our own business decisions, improve Microsoft programs for young women, and rally a diverse range of external voices to instigate action.

We catalogued 95 significant studies from across Europe examining some of the issues that deter women from becoming more involved in STEM. But no-one could authoritatively say at what age young girls lose interest in these subjects and why. There was little research that tracked development over time or comparative country-by-country data.

That lack of a shared, baseline understanding was clearly impeding effective action — whether formulating governmental policies, identifying and sharing best practice in education, or figuring out how to best engage girls themselves to positively shift attitudes and behaviour.

So Microsoft Europe set out to change this.

We embarked on the most in-depth research study on girls in STEM carried out in Europe to-date, and then engaged key stakeholders — from policy makers and educators, to business leaders and young girls — to promote the findings and catalyse action.

Working with Professor Martin W Bauer from the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science at the London School of Economics we conducted focus groups with 54 girls from nine countries in Western and Eastern Europe, who shared their views on STEM. We used the qualitative insights from these sessions to develop a quantitative survey of 11,500 girls across 12 countries (Belgium, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Slovakia, UK), to explore the age at which girls opt out and why.

We applied an aggregated multi-regression analysis to the survey data to identify and statistically prove the key drivers influencing girls’ interest in studying STEM and pursuing a related career. The output was a first-of-its-kind, scientifically rigorous benchmark study.

To promote the insights from the study and engage critical stakeholder communities across Europe, we developed a pan-regional communications campaign, working with in-market Microsoft communications teams to customize content and story angles, and plan local launches in 12 countries. Our integrated approach leverage earned, owned, social and digital.

We created a detailed whitepaper that included a foreword from Professor Bauer and actionable recommendations for policymakers, educator and business leaders; a series of engaging visual social assets; inspiring videos of European women who work at Microsoft sharing their experiences and talking about key findings; and customizable, online data visualizations using Microsoft Power BI.

The campaign ran from December 2016 to May 2017, during which time we shared the study findings at 23 local events in 16 countries, directly engaging thousands of young girls, teachers, women leaders, government representatives, and journalists.

We secured the participation of four national Education Ministers, including a Facebook Live broadcast in partnership with the Ukrainian Ministry of Education, which reached an audience of over 700,000.

But what really gave this campaign wings was the opportunity every market had to shape and localize the launch of the study in their own country and its education and competitiveness priorities.

For example, in Germany, Renate Radon, Senior Director of Public Sector, Microsoft Germany, announced the findings to 20 key policy and media influencers during a panel on the influence of industry on education at Didacta 2017, Europe’s biggest education event.

In Ireland, the team launched the research at a local event with the Minister for Education and Coder Dojo to support the Hour of Code initiative in December, and over 100 Microsoft employees signed up to deliver coding sessions in local schools, while 20+ schools signed up for Microsoft-led ‘Skype in the Classroom’ events.

In Russia, supported by Glamour Magazine, over 600 people attended a local “IT Girl of the Year” award, and 70+ journalists, bloggers and Microsoft executives attended the Girls in STEM public talk. The local team also launched a digital campaign called #DareToDream (#мечтатьневредно) a competition for girls aged 12–21 to come up with creative ways in which IT can change people’s lives for the better.

We also hosted a roundtable in Brussels with EU policy makers and education organizations, attended by key influencers such as Annika Ostergren (Policy Officer of Europe Code Week), Sergej Koperdak (Advisor Modernisation of Education: Europe 2020) and Marc Durando and Maite Debry from the European Schoolnet. And we received an overwhelmingly positive response from the academic community, with six leading Universities requesting the full report.

We leveraged key calendar moments such as International Women’s Day (March) and Girls in ICT Day (April) to amplify engagement. The study was featured in depth on Microsoft’s owned channels (Why don’t European girls like science or technology?). We heavily promoted it across Microsoft’s regional and country-specific social feeds, and engaged the Microsoft Influencer Educators network to drive social amplification and conversation — helping us achieve more than 50 million social impressions across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and 500,000 content views on the Microsoft News Centre Europe site.

We also reached an audience over one billion through earned media, securing 307 pieces of print and broadcast coverage across Europe, including major international titles such as the Financial Times, CNN and BBC, as well as leading national newspapers, business, lifestyle and vertical outlets from Handelsblatt (Germany), Glamour (Russia) and The Irish Times (Ireland), to Corriere della Sera (Italy), a broadcast piece in RTL 4 (The Netherlands) and a 10 minute segment on Finland’s national breakfast TV programme. The CNN article alone was shared more 13,000 times on Facebook.

The campaign had an immediate, positive impact, catalyzing discussions between Microsoft and European policymakers, government ministers, NGOs, academics, young women, parents and teachers on actions we can take to help more women pursue their passion for STEM. But the most humbling conversations of all have been those we’ve had with thousands of girls across Europe, who have told us that they feel encouraged to keep going, and who are truly excited about the possibilities and opportunities that studying STEM could open for them.

There is more hard work to be done, but Microsoft’s leadership has helped us take an important step forward to achieving greater gender diversity in STEM education and careers. The findings will continue to inform our programs, and fuel our drive to connect more young women to inspirational role models from the technology industry. For example, it is helping us to tailor the programs we run in partnership non-profits here in Europe. Through our DigiGirlz initiative we organize training camps and mentoring sessions for girls in more than 15 countries across the region every year; and we are now using the research insights to modify the program to include more women in STEM who can talk to the young women about their experiences and careers. In the UK, we also have made financial and technology investments in Modern Muse — a new, online platform that helps girls and young women discover jobs they never knew existed. And we are opening up greater access to more ‘Muses’: women from a variety of backgrounds with exciting careers, capable of inspiring and empowering others.

We hope this work opens the door to a brighter, more innovative future for all.

Microsoft lead: Kathleen Noonan, Director of Microsoft Philanthropies & Education Communications for Europe

Agency: Creation (in partnership with its in-house research unit, KRC)