Last week I had the honour to chair a discussion at the FiL conference at the Institute of Education in London. The panel discussion focussed on the lack of representation of females in STEM a-levels and STEM professions.
The speakers Ellie Cosgrave of ScienceGrrl, Clare Thomson of the Institute of Physics, Shelley Galvin of the WISE Campaign and Brenna Hassett of TrowelBlazers explored the subject from different angles.
Brenna explained how she and 3 fellow scientists aim to give female contributions in archaeology, palaeontology and geology the credit they deserve. Clare shared alarming statistics showing that females only account for 13% of the STEM workforce explaining that students from all female schools are more likely to go on to study STEM subjects than girls from mixed schools. Ellie told us how one of her teachers had a big impact on her career choice encouraging her to study science, but also shared her personal experience of gender related and even sexual abuse at work. Shelley on the other hand shared her predominately positive experience of working as a female in the male dominated engineering field and underlined that positive role models have a big impact on subject and career decisions.
It materialised that apart from role models gender identity and perceptions among teenagers of both genders have a big impact. This does include gender bias and gender branding which we all have experienced in one way or another. There was also the worry that STEM subjects are often taught by teachers, who are not actually specialised on the subject and therefore not passionate about it.
A lively discussion followed and we were all surprised that there currently are no numbers showing us, how many young women might opt out of studying STEM due to discrimination or bullying.
I also noticed that although I believe I might have been the only female in the room with a BME background, the audience was very diverse.
The discussion clearly showed not only how different we are but also uncovered a wide range of coping mechanisms which we all have developed growing up. These would probably depend on personality, experience and the particular situation.
Some people would report discrimination in the workplace straight away; others rather ignore it as it could have a negative impact on their career and atmosphere at work. Some women are deeply upset witnessing their male colleagues staring at Page 3 during their tea break on the building side, others answer this insensitivity by bringing in a magazine full of half-naked men to work the next day, reading it with ostentation – which as we heard worked a treat.
There is of course no right or wrong, and in an ideal world we would not need copying mechanisms for discriminatory situations at all, for they wouldn’t exist.
The discussion however not only gave the audience handy tips but also established clear recommendations as to how to proceed and what needs to be done to entice females into studying STEM subjects:
- Schools should not take a lack of uptake of STEM subjects by females as a natural situation and instead look into why their female students find STEM subjects less attractive and address the issue within their school
- Parents should be aware of gender “branding” and ensure that their child’s/teenager’s environment is as versatile as possible and encouraging STEM related interests and hobbies
- Teachers can look at the Wise campaign for help. Campaign posters showing positive examples of females in STEM professions are also available to challenge conscious and unconscious gender bias
- Companies should establish more effective campaigns and procedures to make reporting of gender-related discrimination less difficult and uncomfortable
- The government should encourage shared parental leave more progressively to avoid recruitment discrimination against young women
- We should identify and challenge gender-bias whenever we encounter them