It’s All Child’s Play: Inspiring More Women into STEM

by Denise Gould,
Business Development Manager, Eyecademy

According to research from the WISE Campaign, only 22% of employees working in core UK STEM industries are women [1]. Despite working in a STEM company for Eyecademy in the field of Data, Analytics and Software, I was still shocked at this statistic, as it is clear that the experiences of many women are quite different from my own. With currently 34% of those working at Eyecademy being women, it is great to feel we rank higher than the industry average, even if there is a long way to go before true equality. On hearing this statistic, I thought back to my own life about my journey to this point in my career, and what factors made the difference for me.

 

My journey into the technology sector started by having a father whom, while being from a working-class male-dominated background, was a feminist, even before knew there was a label for his beliefs. I was his first child, and as such, he maintained that I should not be automatically given what was considered ‘gender role’ themed toys of the time, such as dolls, vacuum cleaners, and kitchens. Instead, it was his view that I should be able to explore everything and make decisions for myself, without being conditioned from an early age. He made me stilts, a wooden sword (to deal with my Pirate obsession), bought me a chemistry set and roller skates, and enabled me to happily explore the world of toys in my own way.

A quick stroll down the toy aisle 50 years later sadly told me not much has changed from those days. There are still very few toys aimed at girls that exhibit a ‘non-traditional’ career connection. This strikes me as a real shame, as I suppose my non-traditional start actually became the cornerstone for my future life and career, as I can’t recall ever feeling limited in my choices.

 

Challenging Career Preconceptions

When I spoke with my nieces about their perceptions about STEM industries, I was struck with their image of a computer scientist as a male who is focused solely on programming, and this was at odds with how they see themselves. With a lack of famous female role models that are publicised by the media who they could identify with, it is no surprise that their understanding of the technology industry is so narrow. However, for me, computer science reflects a deeper learning, analysing data or using technology to problem-solve effectively, encouraging individuals to produce great design, think algorithmically, push the boundaries of what is possible, and improve our quality of life. I see a heavy emphasis on collaborative working, as well as a huge focus on creativity, in order to think beyond our current technological limits to innovate even further.

 

What worries me most about my niece’s perceptions, is that many pre-school children are already thinking about the career they would want to have when they grow up. How many times do you remember being asked this question? If children as young as four show a strong gender bias towards jobs, with still high amounts of young girls choosing traditionally ‘female’ occupations, surely, we as parents and educators need to throw all our efforts into countering this as early as possible.

Some studies have also shown that by the age of ten, it may be too late to change the beliefs of children regarding traditional gender roles and careers [2]. Who is to say that this early gender bias does not impact women later on in their career paths? The Royal Society of Edinburgh finds that in Scotland, a large number of women graduate in STEM subjects but fail to move onto a STEM career compared to men [3].

Let’s not limit the possibilities for half of our population, instead let’s help and support the younger generation to make good, open decisions about their future careers, especially at young ages where children are at their most imaginative and creative.

Opportunities Delivering Value for Everybody

I want other girls and women to have the experiences I have enjoyed throughout my childhood and career, working with a great and varied group of smart confident women in a technological field, all coming from diverse backgrounds. However, I would also like to pay tribute to the men I work with, who are also great colleagues. Together, we engage collaboratively and respectfully on projects, where our complementary viewpoints and ideas all add to the richness of our solutions. Diverse teams have also been found statistically to reap returns for businesses, with companies in the top quartile for gender diversity being 15% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians [4].

So what I would love, is for us all to concentrate on broadcasting the message that STEM industries are for women, no matter what your preconceptions are. Whether that be through mentoring schemes focused on girls with content that resonates with and interests them, or publicising great women in technology. Despite governments like Scotland investing more in programmes to improve equality at school, higher education and work [5], there is still a lot as a community we can do. After all, the benefits of gender equality in technology are for everyone, with the Royal Society of Edinburgh also estimating that doubling women’s high-skill contributions to Scotland’s economy would benefit the country by over £170 million per year [3].

At this pinnacle moment, isn’t it well past time, that we open up horizons rather than narrow them? It may all be child’s play, after all. 

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[1] 2018 Workforce Statistics – the WISE Campaign (2018) (https://www.wisecampaign.org.uk/statistics/2018-workforce-statistics/ )
[2] Boseley, S (2017), ‘Children are straitjacketed into gender roles in early adolescence says study’, The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/sep/20/children-are-straitjacketed-into-gender-roles-in-early-adolescence-says-study)

[3] Tapping All our Talents (2012), United Kingdom: The Royal Society of Edinburgh,

[4] Hunt, V., Layton, D., & Prince, S. (2015), ‘Why Diversity Matters’, McKinsey & Company (https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/why-diversity-matters)
[5] Science and research: Women in STEM – Gov.scot. (2018). (https://www.gov.scot/policies/science-and-research/women-stem/)

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