Breaking down gender barriers in STEM

Written by: Charlotte Attwood | Published:
Charlotte Attwood, Head, Women In Tech

How do we – both as a society and in schools – encourage more women into STEM subjects and careers?

There’s no doubt that women are significantly under-represented in STEM industries. While in 2017, women were represented in these industries more so than ever before, even then they only accounted for 23 per cent of the core STEM workforce. Further, women constitute only 8.1 per cent of those starting a STEM Apprenticeship, and only 24 per cent of those graduating with STEM degrees.

There are more jobs in the combined STEM sectors than there are in any other areas, and 93 per cent of STEM-related jobs pay more than the national average. This is, in part, why getting women into STEM is so important. As the gender pay gap persists, the need for proportional representation of women in industries that are so large and well-paid is pressing.

This specific type of gender inequality has been the subject of a wide range of research. There is no evidence to suggest that this imbalance exists because of disparate intrinsic or biological aptitude between the genders.

Instead, the research shows that women face a collection of pervasive socio-cultural misperceptions that deter them from pursuing a career in these fields.

Virtually from birth, young girls – and boys – are exposed to societal stereotypes that suggest STEM industries are not for women. Whether it be the toys they play with, the role-models they are presented with or the things they see on television, children are subconsciously indoctrinated with the notion that occupations are fundamentally gendered.

These stereotypes persist into adulthood, supported by inadvertent messaging by way of ill-informed careers advice or a lack of support for girls interested in STEM.

These stereotypes are reinforced in so many different ways that the task of removing them from society is one of great complexity. The education system is, therefore, a critical tool in the reversal of the problem. By challenging these perceptions, schools and teachers can provide young girls with the information they need to make informed decisions about their interests and goals without any misconceptions about their own capabilities.

A comprehensive solution must exist across all stages of the education process if this issue is to be properly remedied. In the earliest stages of education, the focus for educators should be on challenging gender roles on a more general level. There are so many factors that subconsciously indicate to young girls that their capacities are different to those of their male counterparts including:

  • Requiring girls to wear skirts as part of their uniform.
  • Offering different sports to girls and boys.
  • Asking boys to move chairs and tables while the girls are responsible for tidying up.

Language can also have a particular impact on young children. For example, discussion of occupations should not be gendered – i.e chairman, fireman, midwife, waitress. Challenging stereotypes on a wider scale at a young age sets an excellent precedent on equality which can be built upon through the later stages of education.

Secondary education is certainly the most important period of the process for making an eventual impact on the gender make up of STEM industries. The nature of work in the STEM industries means that the workforce almost all have a degree in a STEM-related field, and many of them have had further and specific training. The prerequisite for acceptance onto a STEM-related degree course is having GCSEs and A levels in those subjects.

That is why the secondary stage is so crucial – because it is here that the chain of cause and effect begins that is leading to occupational misrepresentation.

At this stage, the focus should be on making absolutely sure that girls understand that their interests in STEM are valid and useful. Perceptions of different curricular subjects affect the decisions that girls make.

Girls of just six-years-old tend to gravitate towards subjects they perceive to be easier and therefore feel are more suitable for them, despite no evidence of a gap in aptitude.

This notion persists into young adulthood. It must be made clear to girls, particularly those who have demonstrated an interest or ability in STEM fields, that there are wide range of career opportunities in these areas.

Where the school education must take a more preventative approach, the role of further education is more corrective.

By the time girls reach further education, their trajectory into a STEM-related career, or lack thereof, has most likely already been determined. This is where the education process must focus on actively addressing the inevitable biases that have been instilled on young women.

Careers advice is one of the easiest and most effective ways of achieving this. With the right advice and support, women can learn how to tackle bias that they may face throughout the recruitment process.

Research has found that male employers exercise subconscious prejudice against female candidates during the recruitment process, subjecting them to tighter scrutiny and evaluation than their male peers.

Women are typically aware of this and therefore must be well equipped to tackle it if they are not to be deterred from entering STEM industries.

The gap is undeniably closing between male and female representation in STEM industries but enough is not being done.

The education system is in a uniquely advantageous position to tackle this issue because it provides a platform where dangerous societal norms can be questioned in a structured and comprehensive way.

If we are to ever see an equitable distribution of roles in STEM industries, the education system must take action in demonstrating to young girls that they are equal, eligible and valued. 


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