Last week the House of Lords released their report on digital skills - "Make or Break: The UK's Digital Future". A number of calls to action were highlighted, but one in particular stood out to me: realise the economic potential of more women in digital careers.
The report's summary of the issue reads as follows: "Women and girls are not choosing digital and science and technology career paths or subjects at school. Partly this is because these careers are seen as a 'boys club', partly because careers guidance needs reforming, and partly because the guiding influences in their lives are unaware of the broad range of careers on offer."
This certainly isn't a new problem. It's one that a lot of women and men working in the world of STEM have been pondering for some time. So what can we do to address the small number of women choosing to work in STEM careers?
The problem starts at a young age. We know that girls perform equally to boys in STEM subjects up to the point where specialisation occurs, at around 14. Then, girls simply don't choose STEM subjects. Girls are making choices at an age where they are developing their identity and exploring their self-image and a subject choice can be one way for them to see themselves. The stereotypical associations that STEM subjects are for boys makes these subject choices difficult for young females.
What 'boys club'?
I often wonder where my own desire to exclusively study STEM subjects came from. With A levels comprised of maths and all three sciences, an AS in technology and a degree in Engineering, I managed to cover the full STEM acronym during my education. My suspicion is that it had something to do with going to an all girls school. I was oblivious to the idea that STEM was a 'boys club'. My world was filled with females, all encouraging me to follow my interests.
University came as a bit of a shock. Females account for between 15-20% of engineering and computer science students at universities in the UK. I had heard the numbers, but they had failed to capture just what it would feel like to find yourself in a large lecture room filled with 150 students, only 20 of whom were female. I immediately felt like an outsider, enough so that within one term I was considering dropping out and choosing a subject "more suited to me". Had I already experienced this male dominated environment whilst studying for my GCSEs and A-levels, would I have still chosen to study engineering? I suspect not. What, in that case, would I have needed to convince me to still follow a path into engineering?
The answer isn't novel. Girls need female role models to show them examples of women who've chosen to become engineers and scientists or pursue digital careers. Our work can define who we are, and right now a young girl chasing a dream to become a computer programmer sees a world of men. It's hard for her to identify with that. So adult girl geeks everywhere, start sharing your stories. Why do you love the digital world? What is great about coding? How does your career in engineering help define you? Make yourselves known to young girls, who right now associate all things technical with the men in their lives.
A few things you can do
Go along to your local Code Club and show young girls and boys that women can be a part of the digital world too. If you know any teachers, particularly in science or computing, let them know you would be happy to go into their school to give a talk on STEM careers. Become a STEM ambassador with STEMNET and support initiatives like Stemettes. And easiest of all, share your story with your daughters, nieces, younger cousins, any young female in your life and let them know you are a girl geek and proud of it!
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