Today science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects are more important than ever. Digital technologies are transforming the world we live in, from the internet of things, artificial intelligence, robotics to biotechnology. Industries are rapidly evolving to embrace digital innovation, and STEM skills are at the heart of this transformation, helping us push technological and scientific frontiers.
STEM graduate shortfall
Recent research suggests there will be 142,000 new science, research engineering and technology jobs in the UK from now until 2023, growing twice as fast as other careers. However, figures also indicate that there will be a shortfall in the number of graduates for these roles. Currently only one in five people working in science, technology, engineering and maths occupations are female. To recruit the number of graduates for the future, the UK economy urgently needs more women to study STEM. Despite various government efforts and corporate initiatives like EDF Energy’s Pretty Curious programme, women still seem to be shying away from STEM subjects. Even though many studies have shown that on average men and women have the same abilities in maths and science.
Outdated stereotypes and perceptions
The current perception is that STEM are often male dominated, masculine subjects. Students sometimes acquire these stereotypes at a young age and then continue to be influenced by them. Additionally, while STEM can be among the most creative and fulfilling subjects to study, they can often be positioned as dry, statistical and isolating disciplines, more for the technical rather than verbal or creative types. As women are generally more fluent in verbal communication they could easily be led to believe that their skillsets and talents are best used elsewhere. Breaking the stereotype and correctly representing the opportunities of studying and working in STEM, is a vital step in attracting more women to the field.
Girls sometimes perform less well in science and maths, not from their lack of aptitude, but more their attitudes and confidence. One study suggests that girls lack self-confidence in their ability to solve maths and science problems, and end up achieving worse results than they should, despite outperforming boys overall. Another indicates that boys are almost twice as likely as girls to call themselves a ‘natural’ at maths.
Growing up in Colorado, in the US, I found studying science an exciting and fulfilling experience, however I represented a female minority among my male peers. This happened both at graduate school, where most of the class were male, as well as during my Masters in Education, where classes comprised more women. I found this slightly discouraging, however I was fortunate to have support from one professor who recognised my talents and gave me the encouragement I needed to succeed.
Boosting confidence levels will help more girls perform better in STEM subjects at school. Since increased confidence will enable them to have a higher level of focus, being able to think critically and take calculated risks, all of which are key components for success in STEM.
Not enough role models
Some girls are potentially lacking in the right role models. Role models play a fundamental part in encouraging girls to study STEM; especially in helping them to challenge outdated perceptions and stereotypes and overcome any self-confidence issues. However, role models shouldn’t just be teachers and professors, but also parents.
Throughout my school and university years, I had a series ofinfluential role models and mentors, from my high school biology teacher, to my father – who was my greatest influence – to my Botany professor who was the one who recognised my talents for teaching and encouraged me into science education. Looking back, without my role models providing me with the right support and encouragement at every step, I could have easily chosen a different path.
Building confidence in science
I have worked in science education for 19 years and building confidence is a key focus for me. I often notice at the beginning of the year, girls tend to shy away from answering questions in class, leaving the boys to answer. However, by the end of the school year they feel more confident, are more vocal in the classroom and many even consider careers in science.
My approach to building confidence in the classroom is to encourage those that show an interest and aptitude for science, to explore higher education and career opportunities available to them. Also, by setting projects like researching female scientists or other role models that have overcome adversity, helpsthem explore, understand and appreciate the important contribution that females have made to science.
I also encourage my female students to get involved in extra-curricular activities. Back in Colorado, many of them attended an annual Girls in STEM conference and camp, run by prominent females in STEM. These events enable girls to take time to explore their skills, passions and ambitions outside of school.
Focus for the future
Educators have a profound influence over students’ subject and career choices, so it is our duty to ensure that all students, especially girls, understand the true creative potential that STEM subjects offer. By nurturing intellectual curiosity, boosting confidence and providing the right motivation and support, we can encourage more girls to choose STEM career paths based on their abilities, passions and ambitions. It is also critical that we help dispel outdated stereotypes and perceptions, otherwise we run the risk of missing out on a whole new generation of potential scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians.