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Myscience CEO talks STEM gender progress and how to add diversity to the sector

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STEM subjects are integral to the UK’s success. Britain is the world’s sixth largest manufacturer, engineering enterprises have had a collective turnover of £1.17tn, and, whilst the UK makes up only one per cent of the world’s population, it produces ten per cent of the world’s top scientific research. Despite STEM graduates having the potential to earn amongst the highest salaries of all new recruits, employers are finding it difficult to recruit skilled staff. 

There are estimates that the UK has an annual shortfall in domestic supply of around 40,000 new STEM skilled workers, and it needs to double the number of graduates and apprentices in the engineering sector alone by 2020 to meet demand. It is no wonder then that prime minister David Cameron has stated that “if we are going to succeed as a country then we need to train more scientists and engineers”. 

This mostly presents businesses with two options: increasing wages for roles or “buying in” from overseas. But on the face of it, there’s a much easier solution. Only 13 per cent of the STEM workforce is currently made up of women. If this proportion was increased to 46 per cent – the total female workforce average in the UK – the shortfall issue could be resolved. 

There have been several government reviews focused on STEM skills, with some making the link between the skills shortage and gender diversity. Unfortunately many of these have remained relevant a decade on. For example, in 2004 the government’s ten-year Science and Innovation Investment Framework stated the need for a “step change” in the proportion of minority-ethnic and women participants taking STEM subjects in higher education. 

In the same year, the STEM Mapping Review highlighted that there was an abundance of initiatives to boost overall STEM participation, but judged there was inadequate coordination and evaluation of what works. Furthermore, it stated that there was a policy gap; a lack of initiatives encouraging women, girls and ethnic minorities into STEM. 

Read more about women in STEM:

With indications pointing to qualifications in STEM being in record demand in later years, inspiring young people from an early age in such subjects is essential, whether they go on to work in a STEM-related career or not, said Yvonne Baker, CEO of Myscience

Ultimately, it means that Britain can’t afford to discriminate, she claimed. After all, it was suggested by Ofsted in 2011 that girls have better educational outcomes than boys at the age of 16 and a higher proportion of young women continue their education to degree level. More women also have higher educational qualifications than men up to the age of 44. This success in educational terms, however, does not translate into similar advantages in terms of long-term career status and pay.

Women are crowded into a narrow range of lower-paying occupations that do not make the best use of their skills, despite the National Skills Forum having reported that increasing the range and level of women’s skills would help to combat the UK’s skills deficit.

Young children are natural inventors and engineers, Baker explained. Yet, too often, girls in particular can find encouragement lacking. This is driven by outdated ideas from parents, and sometimes teachers, on what manufacturing or engineering is – or their own lack of confidence with mathematics and science.

Part of the problem, Baker suggested, is a persistent stereotype which makes the industry less appealing to women. This was echoed by Ofsted research, which revealed that from an early age, girls held stereotypical views about jobs for men and women. They retained those views throughout their schooling despite being taught about equality of opportunity and knowing their rights to access any kind of future career.

“Even now, there is still a lot of misunderstanding about what it actually means to work in a STEM career,” Baker said. “With so many career paths to choose from, there is no one set of skills or activities that could sum up the sector. You could be working in STEM and tasting chocolate for a living.”

Thus, she concluded, that giving quality advice to students about careers in STEM sectors is a challenge. “Anyone who has worked in the scientific industries knows how complex it is to explain exactly what their job entails,” she explained. “The term engineer or scientist doesn’t even begin to describe the enormous range of opportunities that are available to those with scientific qualifications from school or university.”

She also explained that despite Britain, and the rest of the globe, having no shortage of female STEM professionals, the world only seemed to focus on a select few. This gives the perception that there are almost no female role models. Baker is adamant, however, that women have been making discoveries and forging high-flying careers in STEM for centuries, but the actual achievements of women working in the sector have often been overlooked.

Writing in an article for The Guardian, Baker cited a few examples.

“Few people, even those who watch the Oscar-winning film The Imitation Game, will be aware that of the 10,000 people working at Bletchley Park during the second world war, 75 per cent were women, including many talented mathematicians,” she wrote. “In fact, some argue the very first computer programmer was a woman: Ada Lovelace worked with Charles Babbage to write code for his analytical engine, an early relative of the computer.”

Or look at Rosalind Franklin, whose analysis laid the groundwork for Watson and Crick’s discovery of the double helix shape of DNA, she said. Franklin wasn’t credited or mentioned in Watson and Crick’s paper in the scientific journal Nature, and didn’t receive a share in their Nobel prize.

Read on to find out how Barbie ruffled some feathers in the diversity space.

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