The rare and elusive female STEM student

‘Make or Break: The UK’s Digital Future’, a report by the House of Lords focused on digital skills, has finally been released. Although the report highlighted a number of points of concern in regards to the growing digital-skills-shaped hole in the UK job market, one point in particular has struck a chord with me: that we need to realise the economic potential of more women in digital careers.

A summary of the issue outlined in the report reads as follows: “Women and girls are not choosing digital and science and technology career paths or subjects at school. Partly this is because these careers are seen as a ‘boys’ club’, partly because careers guidance needs reforming, and partly because the guiding influences in their lives are unaware of the broad range of careers on offer.”

The language in the report suggests an element of surprise by the researchers. However this is neither a new or unknown problem, but something the men and women working in STEM focused fields both sides of the pond (UK/US) have been pondering for a rather long time. So what can we, as a society, do about the rather low number of women choosing STEM focused careers?

Stating the obvious, the problem starts at a young age. Although we know that gender has no effect on how well students perform in STEM subjects, at the age of 14 when subject specialisation occurs, girls are far less likely to pick STEM subjects. They’re making these big decisions at a time when they’re developing a sense of self image, and as STEM subjects are typically seen as ‘boy’s subjects’ it can be difficult for them to envisage themselves studying them – and imagine themselves in the careers those subjects might lead to.

The Ol’ Boys club

This gender focused disconnect became a turning point for a female friend of mine (just to be clear, I’m male.) She marched through her education claiming ‘A’ levels in Maths and all three sciences and an AS in Technology, with the final jewel in her STEM shaped crown being a degree in Engineering. So on the surface it appears the gender disconnect had no effect on her advancement. However, she believes going to an all-girl school played a massive part; she had no idea of the gender typecasting of the STEM subjects and instead, her world was s filled with other females actively encouraging her to pursue all interests.

Perhaps ironically, the gender disconnect hit when my friend started attending University. Only 15-20% of engineering and computer science students in the UK are female. She would describe a vague sense of loneliness when finding herself in a large lecture room with 150 other people, of which only 20 would be female.

The reason that fewer women are pursuing careers in STEM fields isn’t a mystery though. I’m convinced it’s simply a lack of role models.

We need to start showing the world more examples of successful women who chose an engineering or science path, or pursued a career in digital technology. It’s not an understatement to say our work can define us, and as it stands a young a woman following her dream of becoming a programmer or an aerospace technician is faced with an academic world or work environment almost entirely populated by men.

So girls, if you want to go into space or you’re more interested in how a laptop works than typing on one, stand up and be counted. If only to become guides for those who would love to follow in your footsteps if given the inspiration, encouragement and example.

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