Most of us have seen the statistics and stereotypes surrounding women studying or working in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths (STEM) fields; it can sometimes seem an inescapable reality that these areas are male-dominated. The obvious male bias in science raises lots of important questions.
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What are the issues?
In the UK around 20% of A Level physics students are girls, and women make up only 25% of those choosing STEM subjects as a degree. Just 12.8% of the STEM workforce are women, and the number falls to 9% when considering those specifically involved in engineering. These figures only scratch the surface, as a quick internet search will show.
Less quantifiably, we live in a culture which promotes the stereotyping and belittling of women in STEM fields. We’re used to seeing memes joking about “that one girl in your mechanical engineering lecture” alongside those suggesting that women in such classes are less desirable than others, and we cannot forget Tim Hunt’s controversial claims that when women are present in the lab, “You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them, they cry”.
Do we need to even it out?
Is it a problem that things aren’t 50:50 when it comes to gender in the world of STEM? We need to question whether anything would be better if more women were engaged with STEM.
Women in STEM have changed the world we live in and have been doing so for a long time. Lovelace and Curie are names synonymous with the computer programming and the fight against cancer respectively. As for the present day, lists like this, this and this illustrate how women in STEM are contributing to work on HIV treatments, testing DNA for mutations, distributing technology worldwide, and understanding the human brain.
The film Hidden Figures has brought attention to black women’s major contributions to space exploration; reminding us that there are yet more inequalities where gender and race intersect. Women have contributed an incredible amount to our world through STEM and therefore we need them to keep doing so.
Employers are struggling to fill STEM roles: 32% of companies struggle to recruit experienced STEM staff; and 64% of engineering firms say a shortage of engineers threatens their business. Annually there is a shortfall of tens of thousands with STEM skills. We need to increase the STEM capability of the UK workforce, and discovering the potential of our women and girls would greatly assist this.
Not forgetting, STEM careers are great for women! 84% of women in engineering were happy or extremely happy with their career choice, and STEM careers offer benefits such as great salaries, work in interesting and innovative fields, travel opportunities, and a wide variety of roles.
What is being done to fix it?
Sadly, there is no simple solution, but there are a huge number initiatives to encourage more women and girls into STEM, on every scale.
The University of Sheffield supports women in STEM initiatives in a number of inspiring ways – the Wall of Women showcases the work of our female engineers and allows them to act as role models for younger generations, and the Women in Engineering Society has seen students write a children’s book to act as inspiration to young girls.
Staff in the Faculty of Engineering, such as Dr Rachael Rothman, speak out about the issue using prominent public platforms, and Professor Elena Rodriguez-Falcon’s advocacy encompasses the additional issues affecting LGBTQ engineers. A variety of open days, workshops and events are held at the university to encourage girls into STEM, along with outreach work where students and staff visit local schools.
Many bodies in the UK provide inspiration and resources to encourage girls into STEM, and the UK government is supportive of these. Lots of companies now have comprehensive diversity policies and foster inclusive workplaces, proudly supporting and showcasing their female STEM staff. However, alongside inspiration and encouragement, changes to stereotypes are also being pursued.
Toys are a major player in this game. Lego’s female NASA mini-figures have recently been announced, but Barbie’s STEM attempts have attracted criticism. They include a kit focussed on repairing washing machines, and an “I Can Be a Computer Engineer” story where Barbie relies on men for computer programming.
There is still a long way to go before we reach gender equity in STEM, but the almost unanimous enthusiasm to get more girls into the fields is surely a positive sign. When combined with attempts to change stereotypes alongside direct methods such as events in schools and the provision of prominent female role models, things will hopefully move in the right direction.
Here is something that everyone can make a difference in – we all have the responsibility to challenge those who suggest that STEM is for men, and to provide positive role models, we need to be positive role models!