It is no secret that women are woefully under-represented in careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics or ‘STEM’. According to community interest company Wise, women make up 14 per cent of people working in the UK’s STEM sector, despite representing half the total workforce.
The problem cannot be explained by a lack of interest at school level. At George Heriot’s, the uptake of all three sciences and mathematics is very high among girls in the school, yet relatively few go on to choose a career in engineering or technology. Most girls who have studied these subjects choose a career in medicine or veterinary science. Young women may be put off the pursuit of a career in these fields as the industries are still perceived to be male-dominated and also because it takes a long time to change stereotypes established at a young age. As educators we have a responsibility to help overcome this misconception and tackle these stereotypes from nursery school upwards so that we can encourage more girls to study STEM subjects at university and consider a career in this field. We can ignite interest in STEM in young women by shining a light on existing female role models and by championing female mentors who can demonstrate that such a career is about more than building bridges or developing gaming technologies. Our teachers are some of the best role models to inspire and encourage active participation in STEM from early years to senior school.
There is anecdotal evidence that girls are more likely to embrace STEM as a career choice if they believe it will directly benefit others. It is crucial to help our young people understand the huge variety of roles associated with a career in engineering and technology and demonstrate how meaningful and enriching these career choices can be. Whether that’s biomedical engineers who are constantly evolving the field of healthcare by designing new technologies and equipment, to helping find a cure to Alzheimer’s or cancer; environmental engineers working to solve climate change; or data analysts helping to understand how to inspire social change – the possibilities are endless.
Our role as educators is to ensure these possibilities become a reality for our young people and we can achieve this by engaging with local industry partners and organisations to facilitate more career talks, visits and work placements because exposure to real-world working practice is a catalyst to breaking down barriers and changing perceptions.
At George Heriot’s, a number of S4-S6 pupils have engaged in work experience placements with local engineering companies and have participated in wider programmes such as the Smallpiece residential course. By introducing our young people to the realities of a career in STEM, we can encourage them to pursue it.
It is also important to remember that university is not the only way to a STEM career and we can be more proactive in promoting alternative routes into these careers such as foundation and graduate apprenticeships, both of which are excellent ways into a career in engineering.
By overcoming age-old stereotypes associated with careers in science, technology, engineering and maths, by exposing our young people to the realities of what such a career path involves, and by celebrating current role models and ambassadors, we can inspire new generations of engineers, developers, analysts and overcome the gender STEM gap.
Lesley Franklin is the principal of George Heriot’s School