June 23rd is National Women in Engineering Day, an initiative introduced by the Women’s Engineering Society to celebrate women engineers and inspire new generations of girls into engineering as a career. The idea has really caught on and hundreds of events are being held by forward looking engineering companies across the UK to celebrate the day and to try to shift the momentum of women into engineering from a trickle into a flood. To find out what is going on, or if it is not too late to join in, visit http://www.nwed.org.uk/
However, we need more than a single day a year. Much stronger focus is needed on engaging female pupils at primary and secondary school with the excitement and benefits of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) careers – not just because it is the right thing to do, but because if the proportion of girls entering STEM careers were increased to the same level as that of boys, UK industry’s increasingly evident STEM skills gap problem could be significantly reduced.
So what are the steps that can be taken to get girls to follow STEM careers? I would highlight a number of major factors.
1) Perceptions and attitudes. From an early age too many girls are still told that STEM subjects are masculine subjects that they won’t enjoy, and lead to careers which aren’t suitable for women. A recent report written by Professor Averil Macdonald called “Not for people like me?” endorses the view that girls are giving up on STEM careers that they perceive as “not for people like me”. Her evidence shows that this can be addressed by well-considered language, images and role models, by a continuum of interventions and by good teaching.
2) Career insight. The opportunity for young people at school, and particularly girls, to get an insight into a STEM career can be very small. The careers that are visible in the media generally revolve around the entertainment and media industries and the lack of insight into alternative careers provides a blockage to progress in STEM.
3) Role models. Similarly role models are important in inspiring young people into careers. If they don’t have access to scientists and engineers in real life there is a danger that they are stuck with popular stereotypes (scientists are geeks with glasses and mad hair, engineers have dirty hands and faces and work on cars), which do nothing to encourage them into STEM industries.
4) Special support. Because of the prejudice affecting women aspiring to STEM disciplines young female students often need special support to develop the soft skills that will give them the confidence to pursue STEM careers against the odds.
This is a lengthy list but it is not insuperable. My organisation, the education charity EDT, works alongside others to tackle many of these issues, both to inspire students into STEM careers in general through programmes like Go4SET and the Engineering Education Scheme, and in various ways to help improve the proportion of girls entering these careers. In recent years EDT has reinforced its focus on encouraging women into STEM professions. As part of this focus we have innovated in three areas to supplement our core delivery of curriculum enrichment activities which provide students with STEM career insights and role models.
Firstly recognising the key effect that parental attitudes have on the career routes of their children, we have started working with schools to deliver the “STEM Family Challenge” which is designed to encourage parent involvement in STEM choices and to inform and highlight to them the benefits of STEM careers.
Secondly, we have initiated female only programmes where we teach soft skills, such as personal organisation, research and revision techniques, presentation and report writing skills, and project management and team working skills, to girls wanting to embark on STEM careers
Finally we have initiated a programme called ‘Routes into STEM’, which is designed to supplement the careers advice available to students relatively early in their school careers, around Year 10 (S3). While this activity is for both boys and girls it is particularly helpful in allowing girls to understand their options in science and engineering careers.
It is becoming increasingly clear that if we are to make a substantive change in the proportions of girls entering STEM careers from school we have to provide them with focused support in all these areas throughout their school careers and particularly at secondary school.
The truth is that UK industry is responsible for its own talent pipeline and, with the support of government, it needs to ‘up its game’ in attracting girls into STEM by delivering the full range of the type of initiatives I have outlined. These need to be delivered consistently by employers in the STEM sectors throughout at least secondary education and delivered across both the state and independent sectors. Time has already run out for talking about solving the skills crisis; decisive action on encouraging girls into STEM careers will be a major step in ensuring that the UK doesn’t miss the boat when it comes to planning for future science and engineering skills.
To find out more about how you can engage with these initiatives visit www.etrust.org.uk