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The nuts and bolts of encouraging more girls into Stem studies and careers

PUBLISHED: 05:30 21 February 2018 | UPDATED: 16:15 21 February 2018

How can women in Stem careers help the next generation of girls to follow in their footsteps? Picture: Bill Smith

How can women in Stem careers help the next generation of girls to follow in their footsteps? Picture: Bill Smith

Archant © 2014

The battle to engage more girls in technical subjects is beginning to bear fruit – but leading figures in the industry in East Anglia say engagement and outreach will be key to bringing up the numbers.

Kate Makin, a PhD student at the University of East Anglia, wants to pursue a career in scientific research. Picture: UEAKate Makin, a PhD student at the University of East Anglia, wants to pursue a career in scientific research. Picture: UEA

The battle to engage more girls in technical subjects is beginning to bear fruit – but leading figures in the industry in East Anglia say engagement and outreach will be key to bringing up the numbers.

While government initiatives such as T-Levels and university technical colleges are aiming to elevate the status and popularity of Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects, debate still rages over whether enough is being done to encourage more girls onto such courses.

Women are still woefully under-represented in STEM education in the UK. According to research published last month by the Women’s Engineering Society (WES), just over 15% of engineering undergraduates in the UK in 2017 were women, and in 2015/16 women only accounted for 6.8% of engineering apprenticeship starts and 1.9% of construction skills course starts.

There has been little change in the proportion of young women studying engineering and physics since 2012, while the proportion of women studying a physics A Level (20%) has not changed in 25 years.

Dr Federica Masieri, from the School of Science, Technology and Engineering at the University of Suffolk, said outreach and engagement was key in getting more girls into Stem.

Her department, life sciences, has run trips to schools to tell girls about opportunities in science, which she believes has helped increase the proportion of women on its courses to 69%.

“We do a lot of work in terms of outreach and inspiring the new generation of boys and girls with a love of science. We tend to do activities targeted especially at young girls in schools to make sure the stereotypes are addressed from an early age,” she said.

“We all have it in our power to make sure girls are included and inspired, but also by presenting ourselves as role models so they can see a representation of female scientists.

“Unless we help them to come forward, we could exclude half the population from getting to those positions and could be depriving ourselves of brilliant ideas for the future.”

WES said there is now little gender difference in the achievement in core Stem GCSE subjects – but data on the 2016 GCSE intake shows a much greater proportion of boys taking up subjects like computing, construction and manufacturing.

In a 2013 report the Institute of Physics said nearly half (49%) of schools may be exacerbating gender imbalance in students’ choice of subjects.

Women and men studying engineering and technology show similar levels of intent to work in those fields, but figures from WES have shown that more men than women go on to work in the industries.

Sarah Steed, director of innovation and engagement at Norwich University of the Arts, said the gender balance on its more technical courses – for example 3D design, animation, and film – is steadily improving.

They are still fighting an uphill battle to translate education into employment, with only 37% of roles in the creative industry filled by women in 2016, according to government figures.

The university’s student faculty is 60% female and 39% male, rising to 64% and 35% on creative arts courses.

“In some courses we have been quite successful in getting more girls to do them and there are some which are steadfastly female, where we would like to get more boys involved,” Ms Steed said. “Games design is now 28% female and 70% male and animation, which used to be male dominated, is 50% female now.”

But she says evening out the course gender balance is only “half the story”.

“It is also about what they go on to when they graduate. In our city there is a lot to encourage women going into creative tech – a lot of firms we deal with are actively working on their gender balance.”

In industries like construction, where workplaces are still very male-dominated – only 2.1% of those employed in construction, building and building finishing trades are female, according to ONS data – concerns around the treatment of women persist.

But chartered surveyor Dayle Bayliss, who runs a construction consultancy in Bentley near Ipswich, said it was “very rare” for women to be discriminated against or treated differently on sites because of their gender.

“People treat you with respect based on your skills to complete the task and the project, not your gender,” she said.

“The other benefit of being a women in a male dominated sector is that you are remembered and that gives you pretty good traction and a USP with clients.”

More flexible working could help scientific career development

Kate Makin is a PhD student at UEA, working on a project funded by Breast Cancer Now, who changed her focus from biomedicine to scientific research as an undergraduate.

In her view, the biggest change which would benefit women in science is more flexibility in working arrangements.

She said: “Biology courses at university are usually 50/50, and as you climb the career ladder it slims down.

“Unfortunately science is structured so that if you have a baby you are short-changed. There are not a lot of part-time positions so you get left behind.

“People tend to do short-term contracts when they finish their PhD, two to five years, and can move around a lot. If you are employing someone part-time for those two- to five-year contracts, it could drag out to eight or 10 years to get it finished.” She added that offering more job shares would be beneficial for working mothers in the industry, to supplement available funds to help towards childcare costs.

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