The WISE campaign says that the UK needs 30 per cent of women in STEM. Helen Wollaston looks at how we can encourage girls to choose STEM subjects and progress into STEM related careers
The good news is that there are now one million women working in STEM in the UK; the priority today is to close the gap in technology, which represents at least a quarter of STEM jobs in the UK and is growing faster than any other occupation group. It is estimated that there are 600,000 digital vacancies at any one time in the UK.
We can’t let girls miss the chance to be part of this growth; they can find tech jobs in any and every sector. Our top priority is to get this message across to girls, their families and their teachers.
There is a wealth of evidence which demonstrates that greater gender diversity makes companies more adaptable, more productive and more responsive to what their customers are telling them. It’s clear that to get ahead in STEM, companies should be recruiting, retaining and developing female talent – and that failing to do so will mean being left behind.
Build on momentum
This year, for the third year running, girls accounted for 48 per cent of GCSE STEM entries and 1,930 more core STEM* A Levels were awarded to girls than in 2018. For the first time, we also saw more science A levels awarded to girls than to boys, with girls accounting for 50.3 per cent of the combined total of biology, chemistry and physics A levels awarded. This is all very positive but how do we continue to build on this momentum; what works?
Firstly, I think it’s important to understand that this is a joint responsibility with roles for schools, universities, employers, governments and organsiations such as our own.
Through our work, we know that there are some simple steps that can be very effective in dispelling myths surrounding STEM and changing minds.
Let’s begin with language. We need to change the way we talk about STEM. We need to help girls connect the studying of STEM with the real world. Why? Our research shows that women are most interested in having a career that makes a real difference to society and I’ve heard from many students that this is important to them too. Recently an A level STEM student told me that she feels her generation is on the cusp of finding new and better ways of creating things in a sustainable way. Another young woman told me that she took up a career in civil engineering because it was an opportunity to be creative in solving problems, help build society and make the world a better place, while yet another said she believes that anyone can work in STEM and through it can change lives for the better; this was her driver to take up a career in technology.
So, our advice when talking to girls about STEM careers is to talk about the bigger purpose of the job and the contribution they might make rather than concentrate on the technical aspects. By consistently re-enforcing a positive message we can show girls and their families that science, technology, engineering and maths open doors to exciting, well-paid jobs that have a real impact on our world.
Providing access to young female role models is vitally important in helping bring STEM roles to life and helping girls see people who are just like themselves doing these roles. There are a variety of ways to bring role models into schools but I would suggest starting with our careers quiz; My Skills My Life, which helps students identify their personality type, suggests career options to suit and provides access to real-life role model stories allowing students to find out first-hand what is involved. Local employers are very happy to provide career-based talks to their local schools; afterall they are potentially talking directly to their future employees. They are usually happy to either visit the school or invite students to their facility. Experience shows that what works best is to ensure that at least one young woman joins the session so that girls can easily relate to them. If you are not sure where to find employers and role models, we are happy to help.
As every teacher knows, parents are the biggest influencer on their child’s study options and future career choices; sharing information about the pay and prospects in STEM can be a real-eye opener for them. We’ve had schools run My Skills My Life resource sessions with students and parents, particularly mothers, allowing them to see that STEM related careers such as engineering, technology, construction, etc, could be a great choice for their daughters.
Parents can also be role models themselves if they work in a STEM. They can answer questions, provide an insight into their careers and potentially be a source of contacts for work experience.
As a school, you can also access numerous career outreach programmes. To help teachers understand and gain access to the different schemes, we have created the STEM Accord. The Accord brings together the ERA Foundation, STEM Learning, Design and Technology Association (DATA) and The Smallpeice Trust, working in alignment with the Royal Academy of Engineering, Engineering UK and the IET.
Together we can change girls’ attitudes and dispel the myths associated with women in STEM roles, then we will see a future where women call themselves inventors.