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Gender roles should be removed from all industries to ensure passionate people are entering the right jobs, according to Techmums founder and Bletchley Park campaigner Sue Black.
Speaking at Bett 2016, Black claimed the science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) industries are not the only ones suffering from a gender imbalance, and we should do more to encourage people to pursue the career they want regardless of gender.
“We need everyone to encourage kids in technology and Stem careers. There are so many opportunities now and I think it’s taking a while for everyone to understand that,” said Black.
“We should be creating an environment where everyone can do what they want to do. We should move away from gender roles.”
Black said that getting children interested in Stem is extremely important, because most jobs in the future will involve digital skills regardless of whether or not they are technology roles.
“What’s key is showing passion for technology and showing what opportunities are out there,” she said.
Johann Siau, principal lecturer in digital communication systems at the University of Hertfordshire, suggested the best way to encourage interest in technology is to show how fun and rewarding these subjects can be, and encourage children to be part of developing the future technology they will be using.
“There is a lot of technology that can be made into connected home, connected health and connected vehicle systems,” said Siau.
“My focus with students is to teach them and provide the experience that engineering is fun.”
Technology role models
The panellists suggested a number of “classroom hacks” that can not only get more children interested in Stem, but dispel gender biases or Stem career stereotypes by including images of diverse individuals in the subject fields on classroom walls.
“We do need as many people as possible to feel like this is something they can do, enjoy and be successful in,” said Stemettes founder Anne-Marie Imafidon.
“There are so many Stem female role models – both dead and alive – we like to talk about, so have them up on the walls.”
The panellists also agreed the technology space is coming out of the “nerd era”, with the stereotype of the young man alone coding in his room becoming less relevant due to the increased use of ubiquitous technology for collaboration.
“Even those people alone in their bedrooms are putting their code up on repositories,” said Imafidon.
She used the example of her Stemettes sessions, where the technology is “secondary” to the social environment and the girls are seen as “geniuses together”.
“It’s more social than anything else, getting that into the classroom is very important,” she said.
Creativity in technology
This social brand of Stem shows not only the need for collaborative skills, but also the importance of using creativity in a digital environment. Most of the panel agreed with the popular argument that the Stem acronym should also include “art” and be referred to as Steam.
“We even take it further and say Steamd with a D, where D stands for design because design is a really important part of what we do,” said Ellen Stofan, chief scientist and planetary geologist for Nasa.
“I’ve known a bunch of scientists who could have been better scientists if they had the creative spark that the arts and design brings out.”
The inclusion of creativity was cited as one way to encourage children into Stem, as was the concept of gamification where coding concepts are taught through gameplay.
Currently, more than half of gamers are female, and the use of gaming in teaching techniques may make coding more accessible to young girls as it takes away some pressure.
“Gamification broadens horizons and makes it feel like it’s more fun and it’s play. Gamification brings Stem into the everyday and extends its reach,” said Anne Marie Neatham, chief operating officer for Ocado Technology.
“Sometimes it’s an early point of entry when they’re thinking about coding, but it looks scary. However, playing a game is never terribly scary and adding a bit of competition and learning about technology in the middle of all of that is critical.”
Early Stem skills for children
The panellists concluded that one of the most important steps to be taken in encouraging children into Stem is to give them the appropriate skills as early as possible.
“People seem to forget they’re using technology all the time,” said Neatham.
“Anybody who doesn’t have a detailed understanding of tech by the time they leave primary school is going to sit on the fence and choose to use technology rather than create it.”