Women Into STEM Careers - Is the UK Missing the Boat?

27/02/2014 15:59 GMT | Updated 29/04/2014 10:59 BST

A recent report by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee expressed concern at the low proportions of women at senior level in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) professions. In particular the report showed that only 17% of STEM professors are female and highlighted a number of factors affecting female STEM careers including "perceptions and biases combined with the practicalities of combining a career with family".

While the report's observations are helpful I can't help thinking that the core reason for the poor proportions was underplayed. Surely the key factor is that the number of women coming into the STEM professions in the first place is unacceptably low. Professor Ann Dowling, head of the Department of Engineering at Cambridge University (and soon to be President of the Royal Academy of Engineering) recently highlighted with incredulity that only 17% of engineering students in the UK were women and gender balance among students in the other STEM disciplines is variously adverse. No matter how the STEM career paths of women are smoothed, proportions cannot be significantly improved if they have not entered these professions in the first place.

A much stronger focus is needed on engaging female pupils at primary and secondary school with the excitement and benefits of 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. These attitudes can still be a subtext in the media, but in particular can be prevalent within families where parental prejudices are generally reinforced to the children, resulting in the perpetuation of bias from generation to generation. Action needs to be taken to break the cycle.

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.

5) Careers advice. Laments about the careers advice available to students are common but in the absence of a clear focus to revolutionise this advice it is necessary for such advice to be delivered to students, and particularly girls, in other ways.

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 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, led by Estelle Rowe MBE, an acknowledged expert in the subject. 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. This is particularly important for girls where parental acknowledgement and enthusiasm about STEM career opportunities will be important in encouraging them beyond the negativity that they will undoubtedly experience elsewhere.

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. This programme called Inspire is about giving girls the confidence and the tools they will need to make headway in environments which at times will seem adverse to them. Similarly we run an all female programme called Insight for girls who are thinking of studying science and engineering at Higher Education level.

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). A three day activity allows students to see higher education, further education and company STEM career environments helping them to compare apprentice and undergraduate routes into STEM activities as well as receiving careers advice on the options within the STEM environment. 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. We need to work to inform, not just them but also their families, about the positive opportunities in STEM; we need to provide them with the career insights and role models that will inspire them in their studies; we need to provide them with special support in the areas of confidence and soft skills to help them overcome bias and resistance and we need to give them clear sign-posting on the alternative routes that are available into STEM careers. Not all these areas are well supported at the moment and there are still too many in UK industry who think it is government's job to deliver them with the skilled workers they need through the education system.

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 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.