Marie Curie, Ada Lovelace, Helen Sharman, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Rosalind Franklin: the list of women who’ve made massive gains for humanity in science and technology through history is a long one, in spite of centuries of door-slamming on the part of the patriarchy. There’s still a gender imbalance in this country, and while the number of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) roles rose last year, the proportion actually fell to just 21 percent of the workforce. Clearly, something’s got to change.
In recent years there’s been a push from schools, universities and the Government to try to encourage more women into STEM careers. Katherine Hanrahan, Marketing and Recruitment Manager in Newcastle University’s Faculty of Science, Agriculture and Engineering, is heavily involved in outreach programmes with local schools. ‘We’re very conscious in our department that there’s a lack of girls in STEM, specifically in engineering and the computing science fields. We really struggle to recruit girls into them,’ says Katherine.
One way she stirs interest in the younger generations is through Motivating, Inspiring and Nurturing Talent Day, a free on-campus day out for girls in year nine, which will be repeated again in May this year. ‘We decided on this age group because it’s before they’ve made the decision on A-levels, before they’ve ruled things out – it’s important to work with younger girls,’ explains Katherine. ‘The whole idea is to get them to try something they might not have access to – in the labs in a university environment – and see real women who are working in these fields.’
One of the exercises the pupils do on the day is fill out a questionnaire that reveals their particular skill sets, as defined by the Women In Science and Engineering (WISE) campaign. ‘It’s all about empowering them to think that they could actually have a career in STEM,’ she says, explaining that around this age girls often lose interest in these subjects. A survey of 500 women aged 16–24 by the graduate careers app Debut showed that almost half considered STEM careers but only one in eight followed it up.
‘A lot of people think it’s to do with girls going through puberty a bit earlier when they’re looking around for role models. And when you look at engineering, unfortunately there aren’t many women. So perhaps they don’t see people like themselves in those jobs – that’s one theory.’ She adds: ‘There’s another, which is that science and engineering is seen as difficult. Girls’ confidence levels maybe aren’t as high as some boys’ – even though realistically they do better in those subjects – they have a bit of an identity crisis. Unless you’ve got people around you telling you that you can do it, it’s difficult to access it.’ Girls often pick subjects that they do well in and have misconceptions about what a career in STEM would entail.
‘People tend to think of [an engineer] as a mechanic, someone who’s getting their hands dirty and oily – so it’s about trying to dispel those stereotypes. Most engineers work in offices!’ laughs Katherine.
‘What attracts girls is putting forward the idea that engineering is changing the world. There’s lots of professions within STEM where you’re going to play a big part in coming up with global solutions to problems,’ she explains. ‘STEM is incredibly important for the future of the world. Big statement, but with all the issues that we’re facing today: climate change, poverty, disease – it’s all fixed with STEM solutions, so it’s important to get generations of people coming in with their ideas.’
This is one of the reasons Laura Heels, PhD student and Transition Officer at Newcastle University’s School of Computing Science, is also keen to encourage younger people into STEM, because she feels everything intersects with computing in one way or another.
‘If you have an interest in something you’re guaranteed it’s linked to computing somewhere,’ says Laura, whose warm-up game when she goes to schools is to get the kids to name a job and tell them how it’s related to computing. She works with Computing At School, which promotes computing in the education system. ‘I think it’s important that everyone gets encouraged into STEM because if we’re building software, it needs to be usable by everyone and built with everyone in mind,’ says Laura.
She’s been working with schools for four years and has seen a gradual positive change where pupils are more engaged from the start of sessions rather than just at the end: ‘They’re all hooked and it’s nice to see.’ Like Katherine, the reasons are the same for encouraging pupils from a younger age: ‘It’s in schools so it’s not having to learn again – they see the fun side of it. That’s what it is, it’s fun – all computing really is, is puzzles.’
‘There’s still a bit to be done in terms of curriculum. But there’s more involvement of computing which is super. They are doing a lot and it is big at the minute.’ On the whole Laura is very positive about the direction of women in STEM and the changing gender bias: ‘It’s a generation thing that’s slowly getting knocked out. People in STEM know it’s improving but I think what we need to do now is let everyone else know it is.’
For Katherine, there’s still a long way to go: ‘When I look around the university, you can see that it’s not diverse – and that’s not right. It’s not representative of the world and I think women have an awful lot to offer. It’s a tragedy that there’s not more of them: we’re missing out on all those ideas and all that talent.’
‘It’s getting a bit better but it’s not changed that much in the last 30 years. When you go to professional forums it is mainly men and it is quite alienating,’ she adds. ‘But when I’ve spoken to women who work in industry they say that they’ve had no issues and actually receive lots of encouragement. I’ve never heard a negative experience.’ With the work that she and other STEM professionals are doing, the balance will start to shift – and, hopefully, it’ll help give generations of women after her the careers they want.