Four routes to attracting more women into STEM

Written by
Laurie Cohen

12 Jan 2017

12 Jan 2017 • by Laurie Cohen

Get them interested as early as possible

One thing that became abundantly clear from our focus groups and workshops with secondary school and university students is that there’s little value in trying to influence young people when they’re 16. By then it’s too late.

Research suggests youngsters lose interest in STEM subjects much earlier – usually between the ages of 11 and 14 – and that the key decision points come in years nine, 11 and 12. This raises the question of how best to ensure that children, particularly girls, don’t simply accept prevailing stereotypes.

A major problem is that youngsters really don’t have much idea of what’s involved in engineering or scientific work. It’s therefore vital to get more information into schools, whether through teachers, events, guest speakers or other means. According to an Institute of Engineering and Technology survey, the most popular methods of raising awareness are trips, club activities and visits from practitioners.

Understand key influences and make the most of them

The importance of informal influences on career decisions was emphasised time and time again during our research. These influences might come from sources both close to and far from home.

Parent power is crucial. Almost all of the girls and women we interviewed had a father who was an engineer, and most of those who didn’t had somebody else in their family or in their parents’ informal network whom they could talk to about their career ideas. This suggests parents and other elements of what we might call “relationship constellations” should somehow be included in initiatives designed to encourage more female participation in STEM.

The role of popular culture, not least TV, also shouldn’t be underestimated. Recent research has highlighted the “CSI effect” in enhancing the appeal of forensic science courses, while a study in Italy suggests MasterChef has led to a significant boost in the number of boys considering a catering career. In 2013 Professor Brian Cox’s TV appearances prompted such a surge in demand for places on the University of Manchester’s physics degree courses that the entry requirements had to be raised.

Promote the right role models and mentors

It’s essential that young women – and, for that matter, their parents – witness and are inspired by the success of others. At the same time, though, we need to be careful not to seize on role models who might ultimately have a negative impact.

The girls and women we spoke to wanted role models who felt “real” to them – aspirational yet not out of reach, successful but not “superwomen”. Above all, they wanted to hear from women who were prepared to talk about their own difficulties and challenges.

The same is true of mentors and sponsors in schools and universities. They don’t have to be intimidatingly senior. They need only to give practical advice, which is likely to be especially helpful in instances where young women undertaking apprenticeships or undergraduate courses face the potentially uncomfortable reality of being “the only woman in the room”.

Money talks

It seems crazy to deny that most young people want jobs that are going to earn them a lot of money. There’s no doubt that university students, to take an obvious example, are acutely aware of salary concerns when they make their career choices.

So do most youngsters – whether female or male – appreciate that a career in STEM is likely to reward them pretty handsomely? Apparently not. Research by Engineering UK suggests not just young people but their parents underestimate the levels of pay engineers can enjoy.

Accordingly, more needs to be done to advertise the fact that those who choose a career in STEM are likely to be paid well. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, and being afraid or too polite to talk about wages is self-defeating.