STEM: Smashing the glass ceiling

Written by: Yvonne Baker | Published:
Photo: iStock

With relatively few women working within the STEM fields in the UK, how can schools help to smash the glass ceiling in these subjects? Yvonne Baker offers some advice and signposts some resources and projects to help

Figures suggest that only 13 per cent of the STEM workforce in the UK, including just seven per cent of chartered engineers, are women. At the same time, thousands of STEM roles go unfilled every year across the UK.

STEM careers are diverse, fast-paced and hugely important to the UK economy – so can we really afford to leave it to the boys? I don’t think so and here’s why.

I started my career as an engineer – in fact, as far as I am concerned, that is still what I am today.

It taught me resilience, problem-solving, “stick-ability” and many other skills, and was the gateway to a rich and varied working life that a girl from east Northamptonshire wouldn’t have imagined.

My teachers, and particularly my headteacher, were instrumental in telling me I could do it, and that I should. And I am grateful to them to this day.

I am just sad that (quite a lot of years later) we are still talking about how we get “more girls into STEM”. What a waste of talent and of opportunity, for each individual – as well as the country as a whole.

So, how can we encourage more girls to study the STEM subjects (science, design and technology, computing, engineering and mathematics), progress these through to university or Apprenticeships, and go on to rewarding, exciting STEM careers?

Get creative

For me, one of the great mysteries is how STEM subjects get labelled “dry and difficult” when in fact they are dynamic, hugely vital to today’s society and – more than anything – creative.

Teachers can make such a difference by choosing creative ways of teaching young people key scientific concepts and facts, such as building a wave machine with gummy bears on cocktail sticks to show the transverse wave motion in a visual and engaging manner.

Certainly, some of the most regular feedback I hear from teachers working with the National Science Learning Network is about the wealth of ideas they get for practical demonstrations and investigations, most using just ordinary items lying around at school or home.

The National STEM Centre website also offers thousands of ideas and resources, all free of charge (see further information for all links).

Join up your thinking

My time in industry was so exciting because I got to work across the whole range of STEM – and work with a diverse bunch of people, whatever I was doing.

Starting STEM clubs can be a great way of showing young people how the science, technology and maths they learn in lessons links up and is used to make a difference to the world in which we live; something that – research shows – is particularly important to girls.

The National Science Learning Network offers advice and support on starting STEM Clubs and other enrichment activities, and STEMNET has a dedicated website full of ideas to get you going.

Code Clubs are also a great way to inspire young people about using their skills in a practical way.

Competitions like CanSat – challenging students to design a satellite that will fit inside a drinks can – are another great way to inspire young people as well as showcase your school. The UK competition is hosted by ESERO-UK, and the winners of the 2015 UK competition have just gone on to win the European round.

Find role-models

While I am the last person to suggest her contribution wasn’t crucial (you should see the number of X-rays I had as a child!), isn’t it a bit depressing that the only female scientist many people can name is Marie Curie (the only person to ever win the Nobel Prize in physics and chemistry)?

First, there are plenty of other historical figures – Rosalind Franklin, Ada Lovelace to name just two.

But more pertinently, there are plenty alive today: Dr Helen Sharman, the first Briton in space, and Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, quickly come to mind.

Even then, perhaps for many young people, including girls, these figures seem rather remote. So what about looking through the photographs on the Twitter hashtag #ILookLikeAnEngineer or #ILookLikeAPhysicist to see lots of young (and not quite so young) women doing a huge variety of roles.

The Your Life campaign also provides plenty of examples of women and men doing jobs using STEM skills.

Locally, you can find young women (and men) working in STEM who are keen to share their experience with young people and schools through “STEMettes” or STEM Ambassadors (managed by STEMNET).

There is also whynotchemeng? – a programme run by the Institution of Chemical Engineers – linking young engineers with schools and young people to let them know what “chem eng” is all about. And it is working: the number of applications to chemical engineering degrees has more than quadrupled in 10 years.

Challenge stereotypes

Every so often, it seems, there is a media storm over “why are there not more women in science?”, often catalysed by some careless remarks, such as those reportedly made by Sir Tim Hunt at a conference earlier this year. Invariably coverage focuses on the negative aspects – hardly the way to encourage girls in STEM!

Having worked as an female engineer in chemical manufacturing plants in the 1980s (and having some stories to tell) I felt very disappointed by “the Tim Hunt issue”. However, my disappointment was not just because of what he might or might not have said, but more because I feel it doesn’t reflect the tremendous support and encouragement I have had from male and female colleagues throughout my career.

Yes, of course, there may be challenges in a STEM role – particularly if you are still one of a “rare species” such as a female physicist or engineer – but things are changing fast, and plenty of support exists. We need therefore to inspire all young people with the excitement of possibility rather than a fear of defeat.

Again, invite young STEM Ambassadors including apprentices into your classroom, assemblies and even parents’ evenings to “make STEM real” and debunk the many myths. You can also go and spend time with a STEM employer yourself through the bursary-funded Teacher Industry Placement scheme (TIPs), managed by the National Science Learning Network.

Teachers have already spent up to two weeks with employers like Babcock, BP, IBM and Crossrail with all of them reporting that the biggest impact is their appreciation of STEM careers and the diversity of people involved.

Contributing to society on a grand scale

Many young people are often passionate about making the world a better place. Research shows that girls in particular are keen to understand the contribution a career makes to society.
While many girls study science post-16, many of them go onto medicine or dentistry feeling that is a way to “give something back”. On the other hand, as one female engineer I know puts it: “I can save more lives in a day than a doctor will in their whole career, just by ensuring the buildings we design and construct are safe.”

In another example, we have recently heard reports that Ebola has been successfully contained in East Africa and has almost died out thanks to medical scientists, along with engineers, lab technicians and everyone else involved in the development and manufacture of a vaccine.

And one of my favourite “unsung hero” organisations is Engineers without Borders – whose mission is “to inspire, mobilise and support people to use science, technology and engineering to alleviate poverty”. They offer engineers and engineering students placements to areas of need and respond to international emergencies where engineers can help.

All for one

The great thing about all these ideas is that they can inspire all young people – not just young women – to continue studying STEM subjects and think about moving into STEM careers.

The UK has always been a nation of avid tinkerers, innovators, inventors and adventurers. We invented the jet engine in a shed during the Second World War. We created the internet. Bicycles, DNA, lightbulbs, the telephone, evolution, the steam engine, photography, IVF, toothbrushes – the list goes on and on. If we really put our heads together, I’m sure we can change how all our young people, including young women, view STEM subjects and STEM careers.

  • Yvonne Baker is chief executive of the National Science Learning Network and National STEM Centre. She is also this year’s winner of the First Women Award for Science and Technology.

Further information

The National Science Learning Network and National STEM Centre, dedicated to supporting STEM education from early years through to post-16 by provision of subject-specific professional development for teachers, along with curriculum-linked resources. Visit www.nationalstemcentre.org.uk and www.sciencelearningcentres.org.uk

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