THE BLOG

From a Little (More) STEM Can a Great Economy Grow

01/04/2014 12:38 BST | Updated 27/05/2014 10:59 BST

We have a problem in the UK, and that problem is having a detrimental impact on our performance, our growth, and our ability to compete on a global stage.

Here are the facts: Science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) education and careers lead to better job prospects than most other subject areas, greater financial rewards, and exciting opportunities for individuals and businesses alike. We also know that by getting more women into work and balancing the gender gap in the UK's workforce, we could add more than 10% to our economy in less than 20 years. But, in the UK we already have a skills gap in STEM and employers are struggling to find STEM skilled staff. And although girls outperform boys in education, they are much less likely than boys to pursue STEM subjects in higher education, or move on to STEM careers.

I think there is a solution: let's give all of our young people the best possible chance of success by encouraging them to consider STEM subjects and careers. And let's work to address the barriers that are currently stopping girls from seeing STEM as an area that opens doors to them; whether they aspire to working in a lab, or in Louboutins.

True, I am speaking as the mother of two girls of my own, one of whom is on the cusp of choosing GCSE subjects to study at school - often a career-defining decision. But the other, major reason this is important to me is because it makes good business sense: as someone working for a FTSE 100 healthcare company, I see every day how critical it is that we have a big and diverse a pool of talent available to us in the UK.

That's why I was delighted to travel to New York to speak at the UN's 58th session of the Commission on the Status of Women. Representing the Women's Business Council and GSK, I spoke alongside Culture Secretary Maria Miller on the roles we can all play in getting more women interested in STEM subjects and closing the existing skills gap.

Only 13% of all STEM jobs are occupied by women in the UK, yet we know there are 2.4 million women in the UK who are not working but want to work, and a further 1.3 million women who want to work more hours. STEM careers are an excellent place for us to start redressing the balance.

According to the latest university entry figures, only around 22% of maths and computer science students are female, dropping to 18% for technology and 13% for engineering students. This hints to even bleaker prospects for our talent pipeline unless something can be done urgently.

The key to encouraging young people into STEM is not to tell, but to show, model and inspire. And the responsibility for this lies with us all - as their parents, friends and potential employers.

At a company level there is also a lot that can be done. GSK runs a number of programmes to help encourage people into STEM education and careers - from science education activities in schools and taking a leading role in the UK Government's Apprentice Trailblazers initiative, to creating and supporting STEM ambassadors from around the business to act as role models in their local communities and nurturing talent and expertise within our business. There is always more to do of course.

We need to dispel the myth that a STEM career can only mean working in a laboratory or a manufacturing site. This definition, and ambition, is too narrow. STEM can open doors to a host of varied and exciting roles and professions including, but not limited to, fabulous jobs in a lab or factory. And a firm grounding in STEM subjects, which help develop critical thinking, innovation and creativity, will help prepare tomorrow's workforce for jobs we will need but have not yet imagined.