18/11/2014 12:12 GMT | Updated 18/01/2015 05:59 GMT

Wising Up About Women in STEM

How do we get one million more women to enter the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workforce in the next 30 years? That was the question I posed to a panel of industry experts at a women in science, technology and engineering (WISE) event last week. Why one million? WISE says this is what it will take to get women to "critical mass" in STEM: taking them from 13% to 30% of the UK's STEM workforce by 2020.

The real challenge, it seems, is reaching generation z girls. That's young teens who are not considering studying STEM subjects after GCSE let alone pursuing STEM jobs. To this end, WISE has released a new report calledNot for people like me? which explores ways of getting more girls interested in STEM. So here's a list (gen z likes a list) of key conclusions from our panel and the WISE report.


It is well-documented that the UK needs more engineers and technologists. WISE says the country produces 36,000 fewer engineers than it needs every year. A CBI survey earlier this year found that 39% of businesses with STEM vacancies were finding it difficult to fill those roles. Something in the supply and demand of STEM skills is out of whack. On our panel, Graham Hopkins, EVP engineering and technology for Rolls Royce's Aerospace Division said two words justified the company's focus on gender diversity in STEM: talent pipeline.


Research for the WISE campaign in September showed that girls at decision making-age (which the Institute of Education says is 10-14) seek to conform to the norm and want to belong. Panellist Imran Khan, chief executive of the British Science Association, highlighted the failure of girls to "self-identify as scientists", a conflict at the heart of the newly published WISE report.


Perhaps surprisingly, some research by the UK government's Project STEM Book of Insights shows that "geek chic" and the rise of London's Tech City has not taken hold among generation z, with careers in STEM still viewed negatively as geeky, boring and difficult. Work has been done here before with the Science Council launching a project in 2011 called "10 Types of Scientist" which aims to broadly define scientific jobs in the hope that young people might identify them as "people like me".


An OFSTED report in 2013 found that the influence of schools on girls' career aspirations was relatively small but that personal encounters with STEM professionals can be key in getting girls to change their minds about STEM. Our panel agreed: bring in young female role models from similar backgrounds to those you want to attract, rather than high-flying older women who can be daunting. They also agreed the entertainment industry needs to be engaged to introduce new role models in popular culture. Katherine Oliver, principal at Bloomberg Associates and former commissioner of the New York City mayor's office of media and entertainment described the impact the integration of aspirational female role models in shows such as male-dominated US series Silicon Valley would have.


EngineeringUK found in 2011 that careers advice was still reinforcing gender stereotypes. According to an Institute of Physics report in 2013 teachers often advise students that a combination of maths, chemistry and biology will keep more doors open than physics, especially for medicine. WISE and our panel argue more emphasis should be put on maths and science qualifications improving jobs prospects in broader areas like broadcast engineering, advanced manufacturing, robotics and computer gaming. On my panel we heard about how Rolls Royce encourages staff to become school governors so they can take positive messages about engineering into schools.


Some of the most inspiring stories we heard at the WISE event came from young women who had chosen apprenticeships in STEM subjects. Many had taken circuitous routes to get there but they spoke in glowing terms about the experiences. WISE says more needs to be done to tackle the image of apprenticeships as being for 'naughty boys'.

If wising up on WISE has made you keen to take action why not make a pledge to change something @WISEcampaign using #wisepledge