As a little girl, my friend’s daughter was fascinated by all kinds of creatures, from puppies to beetles to the litter of newborn rats she discovered in the garden shed. Her ambition was to study biology, or perhaps become a vet. She had the academic chops and the grades to do so, but in the end, she took an arts course at university, got bored and dropped out. What happened?
This is the question many are grappling with as they struggle to get more young women into careers in science, technology, engineering and maths. And it’s being asked with increasing urgency as we face a serious skills deficit in STEM that may only worsen once we’re out of the EU.
We need every skilled, able person we can muster to lead the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ — yet our efforts to attract more women to STEM-sector roles are starting to ‘unravel’.
For their part, if women don’t get more involved in cutting-edge industries they risk greater inequality and pay disparity, warns the WEF.
The good news is that there are loads of initiatives that seek to support girls and women who want to pursue careers in STEM. We’ve got role models, dating back from the legendary Steve (Stephanie) Shirley, to Nobel prize-winner Elizabeth Blackburn, to Martha Lane-Fox, to the young entrepreneurs of today.
More girls are taking science, tech or maths subjects at A-level, according to research by The Times newspaper. The number of women who achieved a Core-STEM apprenticeship rose last year, says WISE, the organisation that campaigns for gender equality in science, tech and engineering.
But too few are sticking with STEM beyond A-level. “In nearly all countries, more girls appeared capable of college-level STEM study than had enrolled,” says a paper by Gijsbert Stoet and David Geary.
So are girls just not that into it, as one (male) robotics undergrad suggested to me recently? Or does something happen to put them off?
The C-word: Our old friend, confidence, appears to matter. Girls are far less likely to claim they are ‘naturals’ at maths than boys, according to a recent NESTA and Maths Mission study. But far more limiting are the stereotypes girls must conform to at school. A young Sheryl Sandberg was branded bossy by a teacher at school, but wasn’t that just natural leadership ability in its infancy?
Without precedent or prejudice in their families, they just followed their hearts ― and the most likely path to a solid career.
Of course, once they reach the workplace, even the most pioneering women may encounter obstacles they cannot overcome. You’ve got to wonder whether the reputation several STEM-sector organisations have for sexism is the real deterrent.
After all, who wants to work for a company where male peers think you are biologically less able (as former Google staffer James Damore suggested)? Or worse, where you must endure what Susan Fowler had to at Uber ― even if her post kick-started a wave of revelations and reforms at the company?
Even where diversity programmes are in place, resentment can fester if it looks as if positive discrimination is in play.
So how do we change the picture?
Paint more colourful careers The way we characterise STEM careers is stuck in a rut. Couldn’t we paint a more imaginative picture of what STEM study can lead to? After all, engineers can do more than fix machines.
Technology continues to disrupt jobs and diversify them. Careers (especially for women) are often interrupted, rarely running in a straight line. And that is just fine. It’d be great if women who’ve graduated in STEM subjects shared their career trajectories (especially the less predictable ones) with school-aged girls.
Think more inclusively The value we attribute to one profession vs. another is likely to change with the advance of automation. The skills that STEM’s (mostly male) leaders value today may not be what we most need tomorrow. Converging technologies will demand that we develop cross-disciplinary skills. Companies may need to look outside their own discipline — or even at non-STEM graduates — to fill the shortfall in jobs.
In a future where AI continues to learn from itself, there’s a strong argument for cultivating jobs and skills that capitalise on human traits such as such as empathy and creativity ― where women often (though by no means always) show natural strength. At primary school, studies have shown girls tend to be stronger readers than boys, yet this is less prized than maths, even though linguistic aptitude is central to programming and data-related jobs.
Get off track Not every girl (or boy, for that matter) is ready to commit to a career in medicine at 18. Some may come to it later. But the UK’s educational system funnels students into subjects at such an early age that it doesn’t allow for late bloomers or second-careerists.
There are currently ‘mismatches’ between what we’re learning and what we need, according to the NAO, which means our approach to learning needs to evolve and adapt. This may be as much to do with how organisations hire and develop people as what they study at university.