Did you know that it’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science? Every year on 11 February, I and millions of others celebrate the achievements of girls and women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects who are leading the way and breaking down the barriers that hold many girls and young women back from entering this world.
Currently less than 30 per cent of scientific and technological researchers are women, highlighting exactly the reason why International Day of Girls and Women in Science exists. This day not only brings light to the current barriers women are facing within STEM industries, but also the wide and diverse range of STEM achievements by women who deserve real recognition.
So, what’s the situation in Scotland? Are we doing enough to make sure girls and women are included in STEM? How are we engaging them, and more importantly, is it working?
Let’s start from the most obvious place, school. Girls and young women are not equally represented in any STEM subjects in Scotland and never have been. As of 2018, there were 10 male-dominated subjects taken at Higher level referenced from the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA). These subjects included accountancy, engineering, physics, computing, graphic communications, and economics.
The gender imbalance in these subjects (especially in graphic communications and physics) between 2012-2018 has been very much static. So much so, that it will take more than 30 years until there is an equal balance if we continue at this alarmingly slow rate.
Girls and young women are discouraged from taking up STEM subjects and this leads to them being under-represented in STEM careers. Could this be down to the lack of female representation in school teaching?
Only 43 per cent of girls had learnt about the achievements of women in STEM fields according to the 2018 Girls in Scotland research. If girls and young women are not being taught about female achievement within the STEM industry, who are they expected to be inspired and driven by? An ideal world would see women’s STEM achievements broadcast globally, making it much easier for young people to see an inspirational figure, look up to them and see that they too can do what they are doing. It’s not as if these achievements do not exist – women are just faced with a constant, ongoing battle to be equally represented within these fields.
I have always had a passion for problem solving and logical thinking. I’m leaving school this summer and going on to study engineering. I’m driven by the challenge of joining a heavily male-dominated industry and proving that women belong there just as equally as men do.
Throughout school I have taken part in many STEM programmes and one moment that stuck out was a talk from a young woman who had recently graduated as an astrophysicist. She probably has no idea that she inspired and influenced me so much, but that was the moment that I knew I wanted to follow my passion and not be put off by a somewhat intimidating industry. Imagine the difference if all girls and young women could have an opportunity like this.
The power of peer inspiration must also not be ignored. Scotland now has a Young STEM Leaders (YSL) programme, which I am fortunate to be taking part in this year. The new programme gives children and young people the chance to inspire, lead and mentor others through the creation and delivery of STEM activities and events within their school, early learning centres or local youth and community groups. For example, I am currently mentoring a younger student in numeracy, helping them to build confidence in core skills.
One of the things I’m pleased to see in this programme is the emphasis on challenging stereotypes that exist in STEM, especially on who ‘does’ STEM. Data really does show how affected girls and young women are by the male-dominated industry.
Girlguiding Scotland’s research found that only 19 per cent would consider a modern apprenticeship in IT and a mere 10 per cent would consider one in engineering. These shocking statistics show that even though progress has been made, there is still a long way to go. We also need to reframe what STEM looks like. Science isn’t just about using Bunsen burners and creating chemical reactions. STEM is everything from cooking to growing plants and even to the coding of video games. We need to have more discussions about this to make science and technology an accessible and inspirational topic that girls and young women can picture themselves doing.
Alongside inspiring advocacy and challenging issues that directly affect girls and young women, Girlguiding is most certainly doing its bit to encourage members to explore STEM and develop their own passions. Girlguiding Scotland has teamed up with Skills Development Scotland and Education Scotland to create the Digital Scotland Challenge badge, designed to empower girls to make the most of the opportunities technology offers.
Girlguiding’s new programme also includes an aviation badge, in partnership with EasyJet; an inventions badge and a space badge, which gives girls the chance to explore the universe,. In fact, one of the most popular badges is mixology, where girls get their creative and scientific juices flowing to make up their own mocktails. This new twist to Girlguiding has added a much fresher approach to inspiring girls and young women in modern day, especially within STEM careers.
I’m proud to be part of an organisation that is pushing the boundaries of STEM and I will keep calling for action to remove barriers and get more girls and young women into science. While there’s still some way to go, I’m confident we will have a future where girls and young women will have full and equal participation.
Today is about thinking about what more we can do to inspire this change. It’s about supporting those who are challenging the preconceived notion of women in STEM and celebrating women and girls who are leading innovation. Ultimately, International Day of Girls and Women in Science is another fantastic opportunity to encourage girls to realise that they can do whatever they want and that STEM is most certainly not just for ‘the boys’.
Carla Gee, 17, is a Speak Out Champion and young leader with Girlguiding Scotland.