Question: What can be done to tackle the low female participation in science careers?
Answer: Role models can challenge outdated stereotypes of women and overturn preconceptions about science.

Jo Swinson
Equalities minister

A lot is being done to tackle women’s under-representation in science and technology careers, but Equalities Minister Jo Swinson says the problem remains deep-rooted. Women make up 46 per cent of the total workforce, but the figure is just 15.5 per cent in STEM careers. The lowest representation is in the engineering sector where only 8 per cent are females. Swinson says the problems start in the school system, and cites the “terrifying” statistic that more than 50 per cent of state schools have no girls taking physics A-level.

“There are a lot of programmes to help solve the problem, but they only go so far because it’s deeply engrained,” she said. “It’s about culture and how we encourage girls to be interested in things from an early age. Retailers still put science sets in the boys section for Christmas as if girls couldn’t possibly want them. Magazine ads routinely illustrate science toys with pictures of little boys. It’s lazy imagery and we need to challenge these stereotypes.”

National institutions, including the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society, now have diversity programmes. STEMnet ambassadors – 40 per cent of whom are women - speak to pupils about exciting science careers. The Inspiring The Future initiative also sends female role models into schools.

“There’s been a huge upturn in numbers signing up to give talks in schools. Nick Clegg’s wife, Miriam González Durántez, is promoting it. Providing role models for girls is vital and there’s more we can do around that,” said Swinson.

A further essential element in tackling the problem is to ensure that state school pupils get good careers advice. “They need to have minds opened to a range of possibilities, but also need to know that dropping a science now could have a huge impact on later career choices. We are working with the National Careers Service to improve how guidance is delivered.”

Outdated images of engineering must also be challenged as they discourage females. “The media has an important role in challenging the perception. How often do we see engineering conjured up with an image of a dirty factory and men in overalls?” said Swinson. “The reality is different. We had the Tomorrow’s Engineers launch recently at Facebook’s London HQ. There were young men and women engineers speaking about exciting careers working on apps and smartphones in a glamorous industry.”