Do women care about STEM?

Written by: Tim Fryer | Published:
I am a designer inventor. I worked in a girls school for a while and a good number of girls ...

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Any engineering event these days seems to have its 'cause-that-must-be-addressed'. Generally for the last few years this has been about the lack of children wanting to go to university to study science and engineering. It has been well documented that we are, apparently, producing only half the number of engineering graduates that we will need to fulfil demand for the next decade.

More recently it has occurred to the world of STEM that if we only have half of the population being interested in engineering - the male half - we have an obvious solution to the problem. Attract more girls. Stop making toys blue and pink and give all children equal levels of encouragement to make, design and discover.

The reason for bringing this up is that this coming Sunday (8th March 2015) is International Women's Day. It is the culmination of a week of events aimed at essentially inspiring women to be what they want to be without being tied down by gender or societal prejudices. Which is all well and good and how it should be. There are over 300 events in the UK aimed at women in business, in the arts and culture, in sport, in politics.......

So at this crucial time for UK's technology sector, where were the women in science and engineering? From these 300 events I picked out a debate about women in STEM at Queens University, Belfast, (although I confess my search wasn't definitive) but there was not too much more than that. Maybe there are just not enough existing women engineers to provide the inspiration to the next generation? Or maybe women don't think it is as important to have women in engineering as men do?

Or maybe it is an opportunity missed.

Tim Fryer, Editor

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Eureka Magazine
The real question is "How much sexism are women subject to in STEM workplaces?"
The answer is, "A lot."
I am a designer inventor. I worked in a girls school for a while and a good number of girls enjoyed STEM projects and did well in competitions. Science is hard without doubt and for girls that can get the grades they are many other choices . Medicine and Biology are popular - it is easier to associate these subjects with real life, it is in the news a lot. Maybe females are more caring. But the way engineering is presented in the media, if you see it at all, is as big pipes and machines. Indeed, some websites I go to when I'm looking at materials or for manufacturers, are so dull - just pictures of great big machines, The sites that show the products that these machines can make have a greater impact on me - I have starting point from which to start my enquiry. Maybe this would work for females looking at engineering and technology careers.

Also I have spoken to a few female ex-engineers who gave up the job and good salaries to train as teachers because the working patterns and practices of engineering firms were not suitable for someone who at some point would want to have a family. And women do most of the work here. That is two lost engineers I know of.

Maybe a post grad student could do a study to look at how the image of engineering puts females off and how the work practices of engineering firms loses female engineers.

Just a thought
Do women care about STEM? The campaign to attract young women to STEM subjects is mostly half hearted at the moment. It is generally thought that putting a female in a hard hat or in front of a lathe will attract them into the STEM sector. It is not that simple. We need to start earlier. From a young age girls need to be encouraged to explore engineering and construction in a fun and engaging way. At Buckinghamshire University Technical College (UTC) we specialise in the Built Environment and IT. We run regular taster sessions where potential students can come in on a Saturday or during the holidays and undertake practical construction and IT activities. Recently, a Year 9 girl came in because she wanted to specialise in IT. When she had finished the taster morning she had completely changed her mind and enrolled onto the construction programme. The session had opened her eyes to engineering and construction and in just that short time she discovered that there is so much more to it than laying bricks. Unfortunately STEM subjects are all too often pigeonholed in this way and young people have very narrow ideas of the opportunities and careers that they can lead to. To combat this, schools need to follow the lead of UTCs and show the professional sides of STEM careers; they need to show that they’re not all about manual labour and physically demanding work Finding female role models in STEM is important and shouting about the success of women within engineering and building companies will help this campaign but alone, it is not enough. . Taylor Wimpey , who is one of our sponsors, have a high volume of managers and senior managers who are female, but they still want more and that is why they sponsored a UTC. Giving young girls good quality careers is key, good advice isn’t just about encouraging them to become more ambitious it’s about dispelling the myth that there are ‘girls’ jobs’ and ‘boys’ jobs’. Only 7% of the UK’s engineering workforce is female, the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe. UTCs are well placed to bring about a change in the perception of STEM subjects and in turn, a rise in the number of women within the sector. With a robust academic education embedded in the practical specialisms, theoretical knowledge is constantly being applied to real-life, real-work situations and problems. With more UTCs opening we could make a real difference to the gender imbalance in STEM based careers. Beverley Flanagan, Principal, Buckinghamshire UTC

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