Giant Lego, 3D printing, gaming, coding – and a room comprised almost entirely of women. Like me, you’d be forgiven for thinking this is rare and in doing so would only be validating the central premise of the WISE campaign and the annual conference I had the pleasure of attending a few weeks ago.
Committed to inspiring girls and women to study and build careers using Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM), in all of one scene WISE had successfully set the backdrop to an ambitious mission: the introduction of one million more women to the UK STEM workforce. Radiating undiluted enthusiasm, chief executive Helen Wollaston welcomed her audience by highlighting the symbolic nature of the day; we were celebrating the achievements of women in science on the 40th anniversary of the Sex Discrimination Act.
In a world home to increasingly geek-chic glasses, plenty of my tech-obsessed girl friends and nine seasons of Big Bang Theory, I couldn’t help but wonder just how big the gender gap really was in a STEM lab. This felt all the more necessary as a member of a female dominated industry and as a graduate privileged to be working for a company in which 44% of global leadership positions are held by women.
Within moments of the panel kicking off discussion, the admission that women accounted for just 14.4% of the UK’s STEM workforce last year more than adequately answered my question. Whilst the gender discrepancy at large was clearly indisputable, I soon learned the muddied complexity of the issue at various stages of the pipeline was not.
Take university for example. In contrast to the high proportion of female undergraduates in subjects allied to medicine and the increasingly gender neutral uptake in the mathematical and physical sciences, women comprised a mere 14% and 17% of 2014 graduates in both Engineering/Technology and Computer Sciences respectively.
Not wholly surprising? I’d be inclined to agree and therein lies a substantial problem. Whilst the need to encourage further education in these areas is a widely acknowledged concern, graduate recruitment and the ongoing retention and promotion of female talent in the STEM workforce remains its overlooked counterpart. In 2015, less than 60% of female engineering graduates went into engineering occupations – this too in an industry currently facing a skills shortage and historically unrepresentative workforce in which a mere 5.7% are women.
So what can we do? Whilst the panel debated the role of public policy, the need for more readily available scholarships and research grants as well as flexibility and family-friendly working environments, effectively communicating opportunities has got to reign supreme. With the likes of IBM’s #HackAHairdryer challenge and EDF’s #PrettyCurious initiative falling on deaf (if not patronised) ears, campaigns have operated along the very same gendered lines they’re trying hard to refute. Should we fail to highlight the scope of various avenues open to women in STEM, we’ll succeed in underestimating the ambitious pool of talent we ought to be fighting for.