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Back to the Classroom: How do we encourage more women into STEM?

Charlotte Attwood, Head of Women In Tech

It’s undeniable that women are significantly underrepresented in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) industries.

In fact, women only make up 24% of the STEM workforce and sadly that is the highest level than ever before.

With the gender pay gap still enormously prevalent, getting more women into STEM jobs will make a profound impact on the gender inequity that persists in this country.

There has been a sizeable amount of research into why women are so vastly underrepresented in these industries.

The evidence shows that this discrepancy is not caused by a disparate biological aptitude between genders but instead by a collection of socio-cultural perceptions so ubiquitous in nature that they can easily go unrecognized.

As is often the case with investigations into the causes of gender inequality, a chain of cause and effect can be traced back to cultural perceptions instilled into both men and women at a very early age.

The reasons why women are not proportionately represented in STEM sectors range from a lack of solid careers advice, to a fundamental misunderstanding of one’s own capacities.

Ultimately, however, the problem can be traced back to the stereotypes we are exposed to in early age. This is why the education system has been, and continues to be, such a crucial tool for rectifying societal issues at all ages.

Considerable progress is already being made. The number of women in STEM roles has risen slowly over the past years as it has become increasingly recognized as a contentious part of the gender debate – but there is still so much further to go.

The problem is so deeply engrained that it requires a solution to exist comprehensively across every level of education where each stage tackles the issue in a different way.

The focus during the earliest stages of education must be on challenging the stereotypes and perceptions that young girls are inevitably exposed to – not least those perpetuated by the media and entertainment portrayals of STEM sectors.

This requires active discussion with young students about how men and women are equally suitable for whatever job it is that they would like to pursue. This must be reinforced by the introduction of more female role models in these sectors as an active demonstration of women’s capacities.

As children develop into the secondary stages of education, the focus must be on demonstrating to girls how valuable they are within this sector.

Research has shown that girls of just 6 years old tend to gravitate towards subjects they perceive to be easier and therefore feel are more suitable for them.

This is despite the lack of evidence showing any sort of divergence in ability between boys and girls. It is crucial that girls understand that subjects like Maths and Science are open for everyone.

Girls with an active interest in these such subjects must be encouraged to pursue them despite any perception about their unsuitability.

The role of further education in this arena is different to the stages that come before it, in that it must offer a corrective solution rather than a preventative one.

By the time women get to university their involvement or lack thereof in STEM fields has almost always already been determined. Women are disproportionately represented in STEM degree fields, but these degrees are most commonly an essential prerequisite for a career in the field.

Further, a recent study in Scotland found that even of the women who did graduate with STEM degrees, a large amount of them did not end up working in the STEM field when compared to their male counterparts.

It is for this reason that the role of further education institutions must be corrective in lots of different ways.

The importance of careers advice cannot be understated.

Despite the fact that these women have made it to university in active pursuit of a career in STEM, there are many forces that continue to work against them in achieving this goal.

One example of this is the subconscious bias women face throughout the recruitment process. Evidence shows that despite two candidates having the same qualifications, employers are statistically more likely to hire a man because of various evaluative biases developed subconsciously.

This is where careers advice becomes so crucial – with the right support, women can learn how to tackle these biases throughout the recruitment process from people who understand how these sectors work.

Unfortunately, the culture that exists means that women who are more than capable in the field lack the confidence they need to exceed, and this is where institutions must intervene.

Whether its seminars from successful women in STEM or mentoring programmes, further education institutions must take an active approach to preparing women for the inevitable biases they will come up against throughout their careers.

The gap is closing between male and female representation in STEM industries but there is still so much further to go. Despite no evidence of biological differences in aptitude or even preference, women are consistently choosing not to pursue a career in these fields.

The causes of this are myriad, complex, and so deeply rooted within our society that to stop them involves a comprehensive action plan.

All stages of the education process play vital and diverse roles in the remedying of this issue which must be actioned immediately if we are to one day see an equitable gender distribution in this space.

Charlotte Attwood, Head of Women In Tech

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