Here come the girls: why quashing STEM biases starts at school

GUEST BLOG: In this contributed blog post Helen Walker, director of global operations at edtech firm, RM, discusses when gender biases start in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) and how to tackle them. 

Picture an engineer. If your mind conjures the image of a man, you wouldn’t be alone.

Because when LinkedIn asked 4,000 Brits about a doctor’s gender, a mere 5% presumed that doctor would be female. Unfortunately, parents, schools and teachers will likely be harbouring these biases themselves too. In my opinion, this is where the change has to come.

While the media has its poster girls – women who have excelled in STEM areas throughout history, such as Ada Lovelace, Marie Curie and Katherine Johnson, often they are used to prove the exception to the rule. Instead, we need to constantly celebrate the women doing great work in STEM, day in and out – the regular Jos who get things done, innovate and discover. Why? Because businesses that have diverse teams see a direct positive impact on profits.

People talk about the door for women to enter STEM roles as being wide open. Generally, businesses are getting much better at nurturing a gender inclusive environment where women can thrive in traditionally male-dominated professions. But there are still far too many places where only those equipped to navigate the complex playing field can progress and genuinely add value to the business.

It’s time to open up the opportunities in STEM in equal measure.

Bottom-up approach

The UK government has previously noted that boys are traditionally more likely to choose STEM subjects and to move on to studying STEM degrees at university. If we want more women taking up careers in STEM, then schools, governments and the industry partners that I am one of, all need to showcase the benefits of edtech careers to all students.

For me, I was not shown the door. I came through a non-traditional route into tech and digital leadership. In my first job as a teacher, I had a passion for using tech for teaching, learning, admin and assessment. I’m fortunate that this passion took me into variety of roles, such as the CTO at the Department for Education and now into the private sector. I’m grateful for the opportunities and breaks along the way but recognise that young women need to see ‘people like them’ working in exciting tech roles as part of their everyday frame of reference.

Diversity in STEM requires a targeted, bottom-up approach. If young people are to be encouraged to make the best career choices, then we must collectively break down the barriers that are preventing girls and women today.

Seeing is better than believing

Yes, initiatives like hosting workshops on awareness days such as International Women’s Day is one way, but ultimately, it’s about continuous reinforcement. This includes having female role models from a STEM background visiting schools to discuss how rewarding their careers are. It’s the real-life examples – the women of today – whether that be pioneers in creating the Covid-19 vaccine, a new computer game or a cyber security analyst, that will play a fundamental role in squashing any bias that ‘STEM roles are for men’.

What’s more, technology is a great enabler to showcase the excitement in STEM, to foster true diversity in schools, in academy trusts, through into further and higher education. Having a good technology strategy in schools will not only harness the digital skills needed for student’s careers but help further engage children in the excitement of what technology has the capability to do, such as writing the code that makes quantum computing a reality.

Businesses to put the proof in the pudding

And once they have made that first step, retaining those women that pursue a career in STEM is equally important. Alongside supporting schools in showcasing STEM careers, and offering apprenticeships, work placements, hosting career fairs, or human libraries & CV workshops (all of which we do at RM), the workforce must feel inclusive. If not, any efforts made to create a pipeline of women will quickly wither and we will be back where we started.

Businesses must listen to future and current female employees to unpick what is needed to ensure the workplace is a nurturing environment – one which does not discriminate against their gender – even unconsciously. That might mean having female leads on all recruitment processes to identify and remove barriers, signing up to schemes such as The Academy of Women’s Leadership to help create a strong female talent pipeline for senior roles, ensuring women are represented on the shortlist for all senior vacancies and challenging current practice through scrutiny by a Women’s Network.

If young girls are to be encouraged to make a move into a rewarding, STEM career, then schools must initially break down the barriers that are holding them back, while businesses must put the proof in the pudding. And it goes beyond gender – it’s about all types of diversity.

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