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Dads aren't the problem: we need mums onside to get girls into Stem

Fathers are rarely a barrier for girls trying to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and maths, but we need to get mothers on board, according to an expert panel

Fathers rarely prevent or dissuade their daughters from looking into careers in science, technology, engineering or maths (Stem), according to a panel of experts at a call to action for the Wise-backed People Like Me campaign.

“Dads are not a barrier; every father of a daughter thinks his daughter has the right to do anything,” said Averil Macdonald, professor at the University of Southampton.

But mothers are often cited as one of the reasons girls choose not to go into technology, as they often dissuade their daughters from pursuing a job in the technology industry, fearing it would not suit them.

“The biggest barrier is often the mum, because they want their daughters to be happy,” said Macdonald. “If they believe the daughter won’t be happy in a male-dominated environment, they will caution against it, and it takes a very strong-willed girl to go against her mum.”

Helen Wollaston, CEO of the Wise Campaign, said many women who have chosen to go into the IT industry will have a father or other family member already working in technology.

But for parents who are not in the industry themselves, it can often seem like a hostile environment for young women to be a part of, especially if they are not aware of the varied technology roles available.

To reassure parents a career in Stem is suitable for girls as well as boys, schools and firms should ensure that parents are made aware of what technology jobs involve and the initiatives that exist to help make the industry more inclusive.

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The technology industry is often associated with negative stereotypes, which deters girls from applying for Stem roles.

These stereotypes can often stand in the way of girls pursuing tech education and careers. Jacqueline de Rojas, TechUK president and UK and Ireland managing director of Sage, highlighted organisation, leadership and creativity, which are often cited as female traits, as perfect for the technology industry.

“Tomorrow’s jobs will require creativity and the ability to make sense of data, and create artificial intelligence and bots,” she said.

The UK has a significant technology skills gap, with many firms complaining that graduates are leaving education without the skills needed to fill tech roles. De Rojas pointed out that if only men are filling this gap, it will not be plugged quickly enough.

To ensure more children, and girls in particular, are entering the Stem industry to fill this gap, De Rojas said parents must be involved. 

“We need to talk to the parents when we’re addressing this subject,” she said.

Providing the right role models

Many claim a lack of industry role models is one of the main reasons why girls do not choose Stem subjects, as they cannot see anyone like them in the industry and therefore do not think the roles are suitable for them.

By making female role models in the technology industry more visible, De Rojas said it can give girls the “confidence that life is possible as a woman in business and technology, and it’s not just about men”.

But sometimes even female role models can be intimidating, as girls are unable to see how they could follow the same path, or feel it would take them a long time to travel along the pipeline.

This can be tackled by making sure girls have access to appropriate role models, who are presented as real people who have faced similar struggles to them, rather than notable women who are showcased from afar.

Sarah Atkinson, vice-president of communications, Emea, at CA Technologies, pointed to initiatives that connect young girls with industry role models and helping to make girls more aware of the “rounded life” people in the technology industry can have, appealing to them as whole people as opposed to focusing on what skills are needed to do their job.

“It’s about making the role models very accessible and showing there’s a kind of balance, not just the academic skills that one needs,” she said.

Who is responsible – schools or industry?

Many argue that collaboration between relevant parties is the only way the UK will be able to fill the skills gap and encourage more girls into technology roles.

There are many initiatives from the government, education providers and the technology industry focused on trying to get more girls interested in Stem, but many of these movements are siloed rather than working together.

These “pockets of good practice” can be a problem, as they do not necessarily scale to the industry as a whole, and then no change occurs, said Oran Blackwood, organiser of youth and inclusion projects for the Elatt Foundation.

“The gap between educators and businesses is a problem,” he said. “There’s a big, gaping hole there, and we’re just taught to teach a curriculum. We don’t care about outcomes, we care about grades.”

Onus lies on businesses

Paula Kennedy, deputy head at Testwood School, believes the onus lies on businesses to approach schools and encourage more young people into the Stem industries, as schools often do not have the time, knowledge or budget to set up initiatives themselves.

“Businesses are creating the culture that our young people are going to go into. If the future depends on people having businesses that are agile and adaptable, you’ve got to get into schools and help us. Businesses can be proactive – schools are reactive.”

Firms should also be putting role models in front of young people to encourage them into the jobs that need filling, approaching local schools to glean talent in the area, and advertising other routes into roles such as apprenticeships or work experience, the panel agreed.

But implementing the collaboration between schools and businesses must “start at the top” of organisations, said Paul Briault, senior director at CA Technologies.

To ensure businesses are approaching schools and encouraging diversity initiatives, those in management positions at these organisations need to be involved or else initiatives will not scale.

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