How do we encourage girls into STEM careers?

Soroptimists engaging young girls in STEM subjects

Encouraging girls to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects is a topic that seems to be regularly in the news.

Looking at the statistics in the UK, there is little difference in the male and female subject choices at GCSE level, probably due to the requirement to have a balanced curriculum, but this does not continue to A level, where, although Chemistry shows an equal distribution of male and female students, other STEM subjects are much more male biased. Continuing to degree level, 50% of enrolments are female but, Engineering and Computer Science, for example, are very heavily male dominated.

Girls achieve well at school but they are not generally following careers in STEM fields, unless it is Medicine or Veterinary Science which are now female dominated. STEM careers can be seen as “not feminine”, the subjects are considered difficult and there do not seem to be sufficient exciting female role models. Definitely the image of engineers and computer scientists has an impact on career choices. For example, engineering is considered to be all about hammers and spanners, which is just not the reality in this technological age as it is more often about computers and modelling.

So, how do we encourage girls to be interested in STEM subjects such that they continue this into their careers?

One initiative that attempts to address this is Skirting Science which was started by Soroptimist International Weston-super-Mare in 2009. The one day event provides interactive workshops for girls, often run by young female scientists and engineers who are passionate about their subject, with an inspirational opening female speaker talking about their career and work. Since teachers attend this event, it is an excellent opportunity for them to see the careers that may be available for their students.

Having spoken to secondary school teachers at this event, there is a view that girls lose interest in science from primary to secondary school. To try to address this issue, miniSkirting Science was initiated in 2016 to encourage primary girls in science.

The girls carry out simple experiments and record their findings. It was interesting to note that the primary teachers were not confident in teaching science. In this project, the girls are encouraged to go back to their schools and teach the boys the experiments, thus empowering the girls, and teachers were provided with science resources for these experiments. Interestingly, in this project, whilst the girls are engaged in science, the boys take part in a dance workshop, thus challenging the gender stereotypes.

New thinking, which is being supported by business, is linking STEM subjects with the Arts (STEAM), thus encouraging creative thinking and innovation. STEAM may appeal to girls as it moves away from the traditional view of STEM and introduces the idea that science and the arts can be combined. In fact, women are using science and engineering skills in their everyday life, and they do not always recognise this. Cooking is really chemistry and crafts involve design and often engineering.

Mothers and grandmothers have a significant role in developing the skills of the younger generation. It is important to encourage all younger people to achieve their potential and not be limited by the traditional gender views about careers. We should not be telling girls that engineering is only for boys but encouraging them to be imaginative in their choice of subjects to study.

Find out more about Skirting Science.

Ruth Thomas, Soroptimist International Weston-super-Mare