In STEM, only 25% of the UK’s graduates are female. Only 21% of the STEM workforce is female. British engineer, Dame Judith Hackitt, identifies some of the factors at play.
“I’m not saying, ‘we need more women in STEM.’ What we need is greater diversity of thinking, and the pooling of our best creative and scientific ideas to find the best solutions,” stresses Dame Judith, Chair of the manufacturing body, EEF.
“Science and engineering is a very social world to get into. It’s about solving the problems of the future. It’s highly collaborative, digital, high-tech, and there’s no reason why girls can’t do it. Some truly inspirational women already are doing it. These are the messages we need to get across. We need to change the way we talk about ourselves in STEM.”
Is there too much gender talk?
Talented boys can be put off STEM careers by the idea that science is only for ‘nerdy’ types. Yet, Dame Judith says, it can be particularly damaging to young girls, especially when making subject choices at an age when they want to be accepted.
“Being nerdy can mean being ostracised. I know what that feels like. I was seen as weird at that age. Even well into my career, I needed all my self-confidence to handle some situations with humour.”
The “unconscious collusion” can start early. She references a recent criticism of Lego, for their new, gender-specific products. “I was given Lego by my father for my fourth birthday. It became my favourite toy, it wasn’t gender specific. Why is everything ‘for girls’ pink? It’s much worse than it was.”
Less categorisation, more exploration
There’s a danger in ramming the gender imbalance down people’s throats, as that can contribute to making girls suspicious and disengaged, she says. The less subjects are categorised in schools, the better, while parents can be on the lookout for unconscious stereotyping in themselves.
“It’s not about de-feminising girls, but we need balance.”
“All too often we see boys and girls sent down different pathways. Our children need to be allowed to explore for themselves. Part of the problem in the UK is that we force kids to specialise so early in their education, we close off their opportunities. Lots of men say they’ve changed their views on that when they’ve had daughters and seen how intelligent girls can be turned off certain subjects at an early age.”
More diverse courses, apprenticeships and returnships are exciting ways forward, says Dame Judith.
“We’ve got some of the best scientific and creative talent in the world. It’s crucial to enhance that with an effective system of flexibility and diversity.”