STEM: more career choices for girls

What do you picture in your mind when you think of an engineer or a scientist or a computer programmer? Are they in dirty overalls or a hard hat? A white lab coat? Are they a bit geeky? Are they a man?

Girl solder wiresA big concern for the UK at the moment is the lack of women in STEM careers. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and maths, and across the UK these roles are dominated by men far more than some of our European counterparts. In fact, women represent only 8.2% of engineers.

When it comes to choosing GCSE subjects however, it’s a different story: girls not only choose STEM subjects, they currently outnumber and outperform boys in these subjects.

So it’s perplexing that when they get to A levels their interest in physics in particular wanes – and not choosing physics limits someone’s career choice for engineering and technology. In fact, over the last 30 years there’s been no change in the proportion of girls studying physics A level and the challenge to increase the numbers remains.

A STEM-related job can be extremely rewarding. The pay is good and, let’s face it, the people in them hold the potential to have a massive impact on the way we live our lives in the future. For women to be underrepresented means opportunities to make a difference are being missed.

So armed with the knowledge that if girls continue with at least one STEM subject after the age of 16 they’re likely to have better prospects and more career choice available to them, is there anything we can do as mums, aunts, grandparents or friends to encourage them to look positively at STEM careers?

Influencers and ‘cyber-sexism’

Family is extremely important when it comes to influencing young people in their career choice – in fact nearly 90% of young people go to their parents for help making decisions about their future occupation. But when it comes to STEM jobs, women are less familiar with them than men and therefore less likely to recommend them.

A lack of balance in the media makes our jobs pretty difficult – the myths and stereotypes we encounter on a daily basis are hard to counter if we’re not aware of the reality.

As women we should be challenging out-of-date portrayals such as the dirty environment of engineering – things are much more hi-tech these days. A recent article from Tomorrow’s Engineers highlighted how ‘cyber-sexism’ is putting girls off engineering jobs because online images still portray engineers as men.

But maybe we also allow hidden attitudes in everyday conversation to slip out unchecked.  A lot of us don’t feel very confident when it comes to number crunching, maybe joking that we’re “useless when it comes to maths”.

Three young women working together on an engineering projectEvery time we articulate our self doubt, might we be inadvertently passing on a ‘fear’ of numbers to our children? Numbers are everywhere, the very fabric of our universe! Let’s celebrate numbers and encourage young girls not to be afraid of them.

So with pioneering women like research scientist Marie Curie and mathematician and first computer programmer Ada Lovelace as role models from history, and many, many amazing women working in STEM today, let’s take a look at a few STEM careers…

Hooray for engineers!

The engineering sector contributes more than £1.1 trillion a year to the UK economy and engineers are behind pretty much everything we encounter in our daily lives. Sports technology, aerospace, the built environment, manufacture of precision instruments and humanitarian engineering are just a few of the rewarding areas you could work in.

There are opportunities to travel in many roles and – if you want to get the interest of a young person – the pay is pretty good too!

There are also several different pathways you can take to get into engineering – traineeships, apprenticeships or a degree. And because there’s a shortage of skills in general when it comes to engineering jobs, not just women, there are many incentive schemes such as The Year in Industry which provides paid placements for students during their gap year or undergraduate study.

Scientists and mathematicians are everywhere…

Try not to think “what does a scientist do?”, rather, “where do we need people who know about science?”. Because people who use science in their jobs work in a huge variety of places: sport, finance, videogames, forensics, beauty, business, health, education, horticulture, construction… the list goes on. In fact 20% of the UK workforce is employed in science-related roles across all sectors.Young female architect sketching a city - isolated over white

The same goes for maths – yes you might not want to become an accountant but there are so many other jobs out there that benefit from the problem-solving skills of a mathematician.

Why ICT?

ICT (information communication technology) and digital skills are essential to future economic growth in the UK and women have a significant contribution to make. At present, only one in six (17%) of the 1.18m people working as IT specialists in the UK are women but research shows that with such a skills shortage, women need to be recruited in high numbers.

The gaming industry in particular is keen for female developers to bring a different approach to videogaming, tapping into a different market – after all, women enjoy playing computer games too!

There are already a number of initiatives running in partnership with schools such as TechFuture Girls clubs as well as out-of-school clubs which aim to inspire, and computer coding (programming) is now on the curriculum from the age of five.

If you’re feeling a little bit out of your depth by your children learning coding (and let’s face it, most of us are) there are two approaches you can take:  seek out the ‘learn to code’ apps, buy a build-it-yourself computer and learn with them or just allow your child to bask in the glory of the fact they are more knowledgeable than their parents. They love it.

And while there are plenty of resources and positive role models around to inspire and motivate the next generation of female innovators and pioneers there is, of course, a whole range of amazing careers for young people to choose from and a multitude of different pathways to get to that dream job…

Find out more…

Helen Janota

About Helen Janota

Helen is a freelance information professional with over 15 years experience working in the careers sector. She helps people to understand the current and future labour market so that they can pursue the careers that's right for them. Her experience includes delivering workshops and writing content for Connexions and the National Careers Service. She also writes in a personal capacity as Helen Leach. Website: www.archwaycareers.com | Twitter: www.twitter.com/archwaycareers | Pinterest: www.pinterest.com/helenjanota