The appliance of science: women in STEM

Written by Jenni Davidson on 9 March 2016 in Inside Politics

Women and girls are still underrepresented in STEM areas and further progress is needed to achieve equality

In 2014 girls made up a mere seven per cent of entries for Higher Technological Studies, only 20 per cent of Higher Computing candidates and 28 per cent of entries for Higher Physics. They also accounted for just three per cent of modern apprentices in engineering.

Women make up nearly half the workforce, but only a fifth of those are working in science, technology and engineering (STEM). Just six per cent of engineers are women.

This is nothing new  – women have always been underrepresented in STEM areas – but it is an increasing cause for concern as so many jobs now require digital or technical skills.


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Key growth sectors, from IT and digital to energy, engineering and manufacturing, report difficulty in recruiting candidates with the right skills and that skills gap is only expected to grow as demand for them increases.

The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) estimated in its 2012 report on women in STEM, ‘Tapping All Our Talents’, that doubling the contribution of highly skilled women to the workplace could add £170m to Scotland’s economy.

Today’s girls have unprecedented access to technology from a young age, but it is clear that use of iPads and smartphones doesn’t necessarily lead to them aspiring to have a career producing software or designing apps.

A number of different reasons have been posited for the ‘leaky pipeline’ in STEM subjects that sees girls either choose not to pursue science and technical subjects through school and university or, if they do, not continue on to STEM careers or not reach as senior a level as their male counterparts.

A survey of 4,000 girls, young women, parents and teachers by Accenture last year found that 60 per cent of 12-year-old girls think maths and science are too hard, 47 per cent of girls believe STEM subjects are more appropriate for boys and 77 per cent feel the science and technology sector lacks high profile female role models. More than half of parents interviewed in the survey said they felt unsure of the benefits of STEM subjects.

The Institute of Physics’ recent ‘Opening Doors: a guide to good practice in countering gender stereotyping in schools’ study visited 20 secondary schools in England to identify barriers to countering gender stereotyping and provide a counterbalance of good practice.

The study found that while teachers felt they treated pupils as individuals, in some cases they were unaware of the pressure of the group on behaviour. It also found that timetabling in some schools reinforced gender stereotypes by offering subjects in blocks. Not enough consideration was given to the gender bias in displays, it said, and setting arrangements could in some cases reinforce gender stereotypes, with lower sets tending to have more males.

Career materials were found not to be gender neutral. Course choice materials tended to show career routes in maths and sciences leading to jobs in science, engineering and technology, while humanities subjects were portrayed leading to a wide range of careers. It was suggested that this impression that taking science subjects would narrow your career options would disproportionately put off girls.

The report also noted that careers advice was “usually reactive, providing information on the best route to a particular career identified by students themselves. There is little use made of data on salary prospects, or the sectors where jobs are likely to be available.”

It also found that because many teachers enter the profession directly from graduation, they have no personal experience of other work environments and lack knowledge of alternative paths such as vocational routes and apprenticeships.

Pastoral care often failed to challenge patterns of behaviour such as girls lacking confidence and being afraid to fail, which could be a barrier to girls taking a subject perceived as difficult. In one school where mentoring was in place staff had seen a noticeable improvement in confidence.

Research has found that perceived difficulty of a subject can put girls off disproportionately. “In the schools visited, many students and some teachers held the view that achievement in a subject is based more on natural talent than on working hard. This view, which is notably less prevalent in other countries and some ethnic minority cultures, undoubtedly contributed to gender differences, with boys suffering by not feeling that they have to work as hard and girls diminished by the implication that, in subjects where they do have to work hard, they lack ability,” the report said.

The examples of good practice the report recommends include appointing a member of the senior leadership team as a champion for gender equality, teacher training on gender awareness and unconscious bias, making sexist language as unacceptable as racist and homophobic language, using whole-school gender progression data to generate targets, presenting subjects equally to students in terms of their relative difficulty and early careers guidance that emphasises keeping options open and challenges gender stereotypes.

Overall, it recommends that: “All substantial differences between boys and girls in achievement, participation and progression should be identified as gender issues and addressed as such.”

In Scotland, Education Scotland’s STEM Central website identifies similar factors that may discourage girls from taking up STEM: a lack of self-confidence, difficulty in seeing the relevance to their lives, fear of being labelled ‘geeky’, a perception that science and engineering are male industries, the way STEM subjects are taught and a lack of visible role models.

In additon to a research briefing, the website offers suggestions such as classroom observation to detect unconscious bias, confidence-building for girls, mentoring, more parental involvement and careers awareness to begin to combat this, and has resources for teachers.

As well as fewer girls taking STEM subjects, there is also a gender imbalance in terms of how those qualifications are used by those girls who do progress. The RSE’s ‘Tapping All Our Talents’ strategy document notes that in contrast to men, the majority of women with qualifications in STEM subjects do not work in STEM fields. Seventy-three per cent of female graduates are lost from STEM compared to 48 per cent of male graduates. These women are then underrepresented across the top positions in academia, business and public service.

Women accounted for only 10.7 per cent of the directorships in STEM FTSE 100 companies compared to 14.7 per cent for the non-STEM companies, and almost 30 per cent of STEM companies in the FTSE 100 had no female directors on their boards, compared to 9 per cent of the non-STEM companies, according to research in 2011.

“Scotland fails to realise the full potential of its research base and will continue to do so if it systematically fails to cope with the debilitating loss of talent represented by the high attrition rate of highly trained women from employment,” said the RSE.

Among the barriers identified as inhibiting greater equality in STEM careers are the long qualification periods, long or anti-social hours, difficulty re-entering a field after taking time out because science and technology moves on so quickly, and a lack of flexibility in science and engineering to work part time.

Professor Lesley Yellowlees, Vice Principal and Head of the College of Science and Engineering at the University of Edinburgh, and a prominent campaigner for women in STEM, has mentioned the  macho culture and long-hours in science research as barriers.

The RSE report recommended a number of changes to practice including Scottish universities achieving Equality Challenge UNit (ECU) Athena SWAN status – an award for commitment to equalities – and funding councils requiring this, an increase in part-time opportunities and equality audits.

The Scottish Government has indicated its commitment to tackling this issue. “Occupational segregation, whether it is in science, engineering, technology and mathematics or in other sectors, is a symptom of the wider problem of gender equality and, therefore, must be tackled in that context,” said Alasdair Allan MSP, in the Scottish Government’s response to the RSE’s recommendations.

“We know this is not the work of a year or even a parliamentary term but an on-going ‘wicked problem’, that, I can assure you, this government is committed to solving.”

A variety of initiatives have been implemented in schools and universities and outside the classroom to encourage better uptake of STEM subjects.

CareerWISE, which is run by Equate Scotland, was created in 2013 to raise awareness of STEM careers for girls from school age onwards. It offers work placements for female undergraduates in STEM subjects.

Girl Geek Scotland, set up by Morna Simpson in 2008 and recently relaunched with support from Napier University and Bright Red Triangle, aims to make technology-based working environments more welcoming to women and to facilitate career-long support networks.

Grassroots organisation ScienceGrrl has local chapters in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Stirling and Aberdeen that offer peer support and engage with local communities through events and programmes to encourage girls to consider a future in science, while at a national level it aims to provide a voice for women in science and raise the profile of female scientists.

Primary Engineer is an initiative that delivers practical maths and science through ‘design and make’ activities for young people and CPD opportunities for staff. East Ayrshire Council uses the programme for interdisciplinary learning and has established a flagship programme that is being disseminated as an example of good practice.

Graham Short, former executive director of educational and social services, says that their success is wide-ranging: “The benefits go far beyond engineering and technology in developing problem solving and enterprising approaches to learning which are motivating in their own right. Importantly, it has also helped address a skills gap for primary teachers who often are not confident in the area of the STEM subjects.” And with the majority of primary teachers female, this can in itself provide good role models.

In January around 150 girls from Edinburgh schools took part in the ‘Girls in STEM 2016’ event organised by STEMettes, a social enterprise that aims to inspire girls into STEM fields, at the National Museum of Scotland, where they tried activities such as engineering, coding and cryptoanalysis and found out what different people in STEM occupations do. On National Women’s Day on 8 March, female pupils from three high schools in Midlothian will be invited to the Edinburgh Technopole science park to hear about the careers and of four women working in STEM occupations and see first-hand the jobs available to STEM graduates.

The Scottish Government has put money into initiatives to promote women in STEM. Last year it announced £125,000 additional funding for CareerWISE to raise awareness of Modern Apprenticeships in STEM areas to girls and their parents, break down barriers to women taking them up and showcase employers who are taking action to address gender diversity in apprenticeships.

Its Digital World campaign, launched in the autumn, promotes careers in the digital sector to young people of both genders, as well as promoting STEM and employability-based learning.

The Scottish Government’s Developing the Young Workforce strategy aims to reduce gender inequalities in education and training. Activities planned for the next year include beginning secondary school inspection of active gender targeting in relation to college courses and apprenticeships, implementing a Scottish Funding Council plan to reduce gender imbalance on courses, which they will report on annually and producing individual equality action plans to begin to increase participation by underrepresented groups.

And there are signs that things are improving. Entries to the Primary Engineer annual Scottish Engineering Special Leaders Award have risen from 1,600 to over 6,000 in three years and over 50 per cent of the finalists are now girls.

The Royal Society of Edinburgh reports there has been some progress made to support women working in STEM areas since its ‘Tapping All Our Talents’ report was produced in 2012. Since then 45 departments in 11 Scottish universities have received an ECU Athena SWAN award or had one renewed. In addition, more universities and research institutes have become members of the ECU Equality Charter.

Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, President of the RSE, commented: “As a woman who has had to forge a path through the male-dominated world of science, I wholeheartedly welcome progression in championing more women with STEM skills in the workplace.

“Females working in these areas have been, and still are, an untapped resource. Having more women in these areas will increase workplace diversity – itself a source of strength and success.”

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