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How to get more girls into STEM with wearable technology

The UK has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe. Founders of WoW say that e-textiles are the answer

Posted by Alice Savage | May 16, 2017 | Product news

By Michelle Hua and Marija Butkovic, Co-founders and Directors of Women of Wearables

As the STEM sectors continue to grow, the rate at which women are taking up jobs does not compare to that of men. Despite increasing awareness of the importance of diversity, particularly its role in addressing the current skills gap, there is still no sign of greater change when it comes to solving this problem in STEAM industries (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics). 

Diversity matters

The UK has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe, at less than 10%, while Latvia, Bulgaria and Cyprus lead with nearly 30%. With only 15.8% of female engineering and technology undergraduates and 17.4% women studying computer science, it is no wonder these industries in the UK are still male dominated. It is also extremely disappointing to see that the overall percentage of female STEM apprentices remains static and that there has been no significant increases in the uptake of these apprenticeships by women over the last few years. 64% of engineering employers say a shortage of engineers in the UK is a threat to their business, while 32% of companies across sectors currently have difficulties recruiting experienced STEAM staff, and 20% find it difficult to recruit entrants to STEM.

Wearable Tech and Fashion Technology

The wearables market exceeded $2 billion in 2015, will hit almost 3 billion this year and over 4 billion in 2017. Just under 50 million wearable devices were shipped in in 2015 and over 125 million units are expected to ship in 2019. 

Most people who use wearable tech are young; 48% are between 18 and 34, and 71% of 16 to 24 year olds want wearable tech. 69% of men surveyed have a piece of wearable tech or want one, compared to 56% of women. Growth in the wearables market is expected to increase 35% by 2019. 

Wearable technology is a new multidisciplinary industry that involves fashion but with a tech twist. It uses sensors and electronics to place into, onto or embedded into clothing and accessories. When something is worn on the body, it becomes an extension of one’s personality. Add technology, and it means the particular clothing or accessory also has a function. And, that function could solve a problem.

E-textiles is a subcategory of wearable technology that involves conductive thread to sew and create a circuit, a light emitting diode (LED) to make it light up, a battery to power the circuit and a switch to ensure the circuit works.

Wearable technology is a perfect way for girls and women to get into STEAM

This means that wearable technology is a perfect way for girls and women to get into STEAM. It combines a range of skills such as sewing, coding, fashion as well as electronics. These subjects are typically taught separately in education. When courses are taught separately, it is harder to see how they apply to everyday life. By applying that simple basic circuit to a bracelet, bag, brooch or head band, it becomes more appealing because its application is to an everyday tangible piece of accessory that a girl typically already wears. Adding microcontrollers acts as a brain to the circuit by entering code and using sensors to detect and measure data. The item then becomes more than just a piece of clothing or accessory. It becomes smart.

An example is a self lighting bag that turns on the light inside the bag when it is opened and turns off when it is closed. A common problem for females is not being able to find things in their bags because it is dark and there are numerous items in the bag. Adding a simple light and a microcontroller that turns the light on when the bag is opened suddenly solves that very problem!

Another example is a UV sensor hat that detects the harsh UV rays and provides a notification by playing your favourite tune to remind you when to put on your sunscreen. Skin cancer is a common disease that relies on prevention rather than cure and remembering to put on sunscreen is crucial to prevent skin cancer. These items of clothing are already worn on the body. By adding a tech twist to these clothes and accessories, it means girls can see how technology enables them to solve problems while also allowing them to create, decorate and wear their projects!

Women need more role models

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in occupations related to STEM—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—is projected to grow to more than 9 million between 2012 and 2022. For women, that presents an incredible opportunity. Women can and should play a role equally important as men in the next generation of STEAM professionals. 

In order for more girls to get into these industries, they need to see more role models. Because we cannot be what we cannot see. And we cannot see what isn’t there. Schools, universities, employers as well as men and women themselves need to work together in order to encourage more young girls to consider a career in STEAM and to show them that technology is so much more than being a developer. Wearable technology is creative, fun and solves everyday real problems. 

About Women of Wearables: Women of Wearables (WoW) is an organisation that supports and connects women in wearable tech, fashion tech, IoT and VR/AR. WoW supports its growing community of women and girls in the tech space through monthly events, panels, meetups and mentorship in Manchester and London. WoW delivers workshops to girls between the ages of 10-18 to make their own wearable and e-textiles projects. 

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