The fact that women are underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) careers in the UK is not news – figures released by the government in August 2013 revealed that despite making up 46% of the UK workforce, just 15.5% of the STEM workforce are women. A new report published by ScienceGrrl, a not-for-profit grassroots organisation which aims to celebrate women in science, has highlighted perhaps one of the biggest reasons why there are so few women working in, and girls aspiring to work in, STEM related fields – a lack of role models.
In a survey conducted for the report, more than one in 10 respondents named Isambard Kingdom Brunel – a male engineer – when asked to identify a famous female working in science or engineering. In addition, 68% of those polled by YouGov for the report highlighted Marie Curie – who has been dead for more than 80 years – as science’s most recognisable female role model.
Girls’ choice of role models is clearly influenced by the media: research carried out by Girlguiding UK has found that celebrities such as Cheryl Cole, Lady Gaga and Katy Perry – all heavily covered in the popular media – are among girls’ top choices when it comes to identifying their role models, and are therefore influential in the ideas they have about what job they might do when they grow up. The fact that girls are exposed to such a narrow field of potential role models at an age where they are making important choices that will affect their future careers, in terms of subject choice or what course to study at university, is no doubt one of the largest barriers that those working to encourage girls into STEM related courses and careers face.
So what’s the solution? According to ScienceGrrl, the answer does not lie in STEM initiatives that seek to encourage girls into the field by making it seem more ‘girly’. This was something that Helen Grant, Minister of Sports, Equalities and Tourism, was criticised for when she suggested that the key to increasing female participation in sport was encouraging them to pursue more ‘feminine’ activities such as ballet and cheerleading. The promotion of certain activities and products as ‘girly’ is something that Pinkstinks – an initiative formed after news of scientist Naomi Hallas’ work on using nano technology to find a cure for cancer was overlooked by the media in favour of Paris Hilton’s release from prison – campaigns against. According to Pinkstinks, segregating children from an early age through gender-specific games, toys and other products limits the experiences and choices they make as they grow up.
The ScienceGrrl report makes a series of recommendations to address the gender imbalance within STEM education and careers. These focus on challenging stereotypes from an early age, and incorporating specialist training into the education of teachers in order to ensure that bias (unconscious or otherwise) is not passed onto pupils through the curriculum or careers advice. Increasing the visibility of female STEM role models is also recommended as key, something which is supported by Barb Samardzich, the Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Ford Europe. Barb was recently featured in Marks and Spencer’s ‘Leading Ladies’ advertising campaign and in a Channel 4 documentary to discuss the Shard Tower in London, albeit as the only woman to appear.
However, an evaluation of National Science and Engineering Week 2013 may provide some hope that progress is being made: of the 346 attendees at the general event, 52% of those who provided information on their gender were female. Maybe if this interest in finding out more about STEM related careers can be sustained, women like Barb may have some company in the future.