If any government is serious about the promotion of STEM careers, it cannot be left to just teachers or employers
If we’re to close the gender gap in the STEM sector and encourage more girls into tech careers the government must get parents on side, writes Carol Monaghan
In my former life as a physics teacher, I enjoyed occasional interactions with local businesses that were keen to encourage young people, and girls in particular, into STEM careers. My students always enjoyed these interventions as they usually involved nice, shiny apparatus, brought into the classroom by nice, shiny science ambassadors.
What was harder to measure was the impact of such activities. If pupil satisfaction was the aim, it was undoubtedly achieved. However, if we were looking for a wider shift of girls into STEM careers, I’m not convinced these activities delivered the intended results.
Although in my school we enjoyed a fair amount of success with our female students, this was no doubt down to the fact that three out of the four physics teachers were female; a rarity indeed. At the time I don’t suppose we considered how powerful a message we were unconsciously sending, but the results were clear – physics and engineering were popular career choices for our girls.
Fast-forward to the present and I have regular opportunities to visit major STEM employers and world-class research facilities. Almost without exception, they are keen to tell me about their schools outreach programmes and their drive to recruit more females.
When asked about the success of such events, they report that pupils are full of enthusiasm for the activities. And if I push for how many girls are choosing a STEM career as a result of their work or what percentages of engineers within their own company are female, the response is depressing.
One company told me that the few female engineers they do employ are clear that the recruitment process should not involve positive discrimination as this would devalue their own success. While I have some sympathy with these sentiments, I also believe we have to be realistic. If senior directors of large companies know the names of the couple of females among their workforce of hundreds, we are simply not making enough progress.
With skills shortages in engineering, in physics and in digital, and with Brexit looming, there must be a recognition that over 20 years of schools outreach has had limited impact. Successive governments have spoken warmly of their support for women in STEM schemes, but we are not delivering. Of course, there are always notable exceptions and some excellent female role models, but I believe much tougher action is required.
Girls are still not seeing careers in STEM, especially engineering and physics, as a future pathway. This is no doubt due to a number of factors: stereotyping that begins at birth, gender-specific toys that enforce these prejudices and parental expectations that are enhanced by the media portrayals of women.
A few years ago, my then 5-year-old daughter specified that she wanted “boys’ Lego” from Santa. There are many disturbing aspects to this, most worryingly that a child so young is already aware of the expected gender roles. We are fighting to overcome stereotypes that are entrenched before a child even starts school.
So, if we assume that the major influencers in a young person’s life are parents, friends and the media, we also have to recognise that they have many more opportunities to direct our young people than schools and outreach programmes. Inspired though girls may be by industry visits, ultimately the major influencers step in and direct their career choice.
Therefore, if any government is serious about the promotion of STEM careers, this cannot be left to teachers or STEM employers. We need to start seeing female physicists and engineers featuring on TV. Women have to be shown in successful technical careers. Job prospects and earning potential must be highlighted, especially to parents. And maybe we have to look at positive discrimination or even required industry quotas, until we reach the point where a female engineer is no longer a positive role model, she is simply the norm.
Carol Monaghan is SNP MP for Glasgow North West and a member of the Science and Technology Select Committee
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