From an early age girls and boys learn what jobs men do and what women do. Few kick against what is expected of them, and it's difficult for parents who want their offspring to be happy at work to suggest that they go against the grain. But if we are to close the current and predicted skills gaps all jobs have to be open to both genders. We must make the most of the skills, talents and aptitudes of our future workforce.
Currently many companies are struggling to recruit young people with the appropriate skills. In engineering and technology this is particularly acute. Currently the UK produces 12,000 graduate engineers per year but we require 54,000. With older employees retiring many companies predict even greater problems recruiting skilled people in the future. These are sectors of the economy where women are significantly under-represented. Failing to attract girls and women to these roles is hurting our prospects for economic growth.
This is not a new problem and there have been many efforts by governments over decades to change this but with little success. In fact the WISE campaign, which supports women in science, technology and engineering, has concluded these efforts have failed. That's why they are promoting a new approach, which they have branded "revolutionary". They recently launched a new resource for schools called "People Like Me".
Professor Averil MacDonald, who developed this resource, describes a light bulb moment when she realised that the established approach to attracting girls was wrong, that much of the thinking about the sorts of people who do science was false, and the approach adopted was not tailored to the way many girls think.
Professor MacDonald's light bulb moment built on a previous WISE report "Not for People Like Me", which detailed how around half the population, mainly men, construct and talk about their self-identity using verbs while the other half, mainly female, use adjectives. Given that generally careers involving science and maths are described entirely using verbs it's not surprising that most girls don't relate to and can't imagine these might be for them. The established view ignores the fact that most girls entering their teenage years want to know that they will fit in with people in the places they expect to work.
The "People Like Me" resource pack helps girls identify the kind of person they are and then points to 12 STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) roles where people like them are happy and successful. The pack was trialled with over 50 people already working in a STEM career and was found to be overwhelmingly accurate in predicting their current job. For example - someone whose personality fits that of an explorer would find jobs such as astronomer, pharmacist and geologist interesting. A person who is a communicator might like roles such as TV researcher, museum curator, website designer. Girls find that they have several personality types and these can combine to map on to many different roles.
The pack is not a predictor of the future but a way of opening up girls thinking. It details many different roles where STEM subjects and skills are used, and provides possibilities for girls at a time when they are thinking about their future subjects and future careers.
Another important aspect the pack tackles is the influence that parents, particularly mothers, have on their daughters' future. It suggests holding an event for mothers and daughters where the wide range of roles open to girls in the areas of science and technology are presented. Parents naturally want their children to be fulfilled and happy at work so increasing parental understanding is important.
A number of schools have trialled the pack and the most important outcome seemed to be that girls had begun to focus on the content of particular job roles and look beyond a label. Some who had previously wanted to be doctors and lawyers had come to understand that the tasks involved would not be ones they would enjoy; they happened to be jobs they had heard of and held in high regard. After following the resource pack they had begun to appreciate that there are many more jobs available than just those they had heard about.
There are many different reasons behind the low number of women in STEM careers including poor retention rates and this new resource pack will not solve all the problems. But various new and innovative approaches are sorely needed, and this is one. It will help schools, young people and families to think in a different way about the world of work. To recognise that different aptitudes and skills are present in jobs and that focusing on just one particular career at an early age could be detrimental.
For further information the resource pack can be downloaded from www.wisecampaign.org.uk/peoplelikeme