Professor Helen Rogers

Getting females into STEM

Professor Helen Rogers and Lewie Graham from NMiTE examine why there is a shortage of females studying STEM subjects and entering STEM-related careers, and explore what is being done to correct the situation

First and foremost, in both the professional and educational sense, there is a deficit of women within STEM. According to Wise Campaign UK, in 2017 only 16 per cent of computer science graduates and 14 per cent engineering graduates were female, staggeringly low statistics and, sadly, still declining. This also extends beyond education, where nationally women occupy only 23 per cent of core STEM jobs.
The shortfall of women in engineering adds to the national deficiency of engineers, which requires 20,000 more engineering graduates annually, according to the Engineering UK Report.
This will have a severe impact on the economy, national growth and development generally as 19 per cent of all employees in the UK work in some form of engineering. So, what can be done? Well, there’s no simple answer.

What’s putting females off?

As it stands, only one in eight engineers are female, but often there is nothing actively preventing women from pursuing STEM careers.
In my experience, I have not encountered any barrier regarding gender in STEM fields, although this may not be the case for all women. However, there can be social barriers that prevent young girls from studying STEM subjects.
Firstly, the issue of peers and stigma; many young girls (ResearchGate) make their academic and career choices, based on those of their peers. There is a stigma surrounding women studying, the wrongly labelled, ‘masculine’ subjects, such as engineering and physics. Secondly, the very wording and portrayal of STEM subjects is putting young women off.
With the maintained example of engineering, the very definition of engineering has changed drastically in only the last 50 years. Engineering today is much more about creativity and a concern for the world around us. And yet, the problem remains.
While the practise of engineering today is changing and modernising, the vocabulary and association is still old fashioned. The information simply isn’t there for young women. Engineering is portrayed negatively, as a laborious, physical and dull discipline. The vocabulary used to describe it within education is often equally negative. It is seen as a ‘problem-solving’ subject, one of cogs and gears, and while those do still feature in engineering, they are but a small part of one of the broadest disciplines in the world.
In an article written by Dr Ellen L. Walker, featured in Psychology Today, Dr Walker identifies that all women have a natural propensity to care (beyond motherly instinct), an innate concern for the well-being of others. This perhaps explains why medicine in education has recently become a majority female speciality, the modern course and definition promotes the idea that a medic is able to help people and make a difference.

Making a difference

There is urgent need for the portrayal of engineering to change. Engineering should be seen as a way for people to make a difference, a way in which the individual can improve society, another subject that nurtures and directs the creativity of an individual.

The common opinion of engineering in higher education is that a student must have maths and physics A-levels, a logical mindset and is, more often than not, male. The reality is that everyone has the ability to become an engineer in some form.
Curiosity is a human instinct, the desire to better our environment is a human instinct, the want to help others is a human instinct; and education needs to promote these traits among boys and girls alike.
All this said, there are many organisations out there who are trying to bridge the gap between women and men in STEM careers. To name one, Women In STEM, an online campaign that not only looks to level the playing field in STEM careers, but also aims to dispel stereotypes surrounding those subjects. And the way in which they are doing it? Positive information; publishing articles packed with the facts, inspiration and the modern side of STEM subjects. They paint the picture of an interesting, non-exclusive and beneficial career which completely reflects the reality.
To name another, in our organisation – the engineering university in Hereford called NMiTE (New Model in Technology & Engineering) – steps are also being taken to bring STEM studies to an even ratio of men to women. For example, the intake for the Design Cohort (a group of young people tasked with aiding in the creation of NMiTE) has already resulted in an even ratio of men to women.
This is largely due to the advertising of the opportunity; at no point was it exclusive to anyone, instead it was aimed at people, who underwent an application process in which their gender, age and background had no bearing on their eligibility.
The key traits for future study at NMiTE have been narrowed down to just three words: Grit, curiosity and passion. The determination to learn and improve; an interest in the subject material itself; and a genuine passion about the work that will be done.
The course will not require maths and physics at A-level and offers will be given after an interview and selection day; giving future students a real chance to show themselves, rather than just their grades. NMiTE will also offer a Master’s degree in integrated engineering, in only three years. With 46 weeks in an academic year, the course will be intensive and terms longer than those of current universities, however, students will not have to endure the stress of exams, as there will be on going, gradual assessment. A different way of learning? Yes. An inclusive and competitive one? Certainly.

Helen Rogers is a professor at NMiTE (New Model in Technology and Engineering), and Lewie Graham is a Design Cohort participant.


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