My daughter is not yet two years old, so I’m not worrying too much about her career – yet! In the future, though, I hate to think she might be discouraged from certain education or career choices purely down to her gender.
So back at BETT 2016 in January I was keen to attend a panel discussion “Inspiring girls to pursue careers in STEM”. The panel featured:
Nicola Combe – Product Manager for Hive Active Heating at British Gas
The discussion was fascinating and I came away with three key insights to share with my colleagues at Fujitsu.
We need to present STEM careers differently
Prof Averil MacDonald explained how people tend to define things in one of two ways – either by actions (“What I do”) or by attributes (“What I am”). Whilst it’s not uniform, in general girls tend to identify more strongly by attributes, whereas boys think in terms of their actions.
Look at how STEM careers are typically described, and you’ll find a lot of actions. For example:
“Electronics engineers design and develop the systems used by machines and equipment in lots of industries, from mobile communications and computing to aerospace.”
Accurate, certainly – but it says little about who Electrical engineers are. Presenting the role in a different way could significantly change its perception.
“Electronics engineers are creative, analytical problem solvers who work together to create technology that empowers people in many fields, from mobile communications and computing to aerospace.”
These might appear to be small changes, but could make a big difference.
Female role models are also important – not just talking about their jobs, but also about themselves.
Kerrine Bryan told us of a presentation she was giving to a group of girls and their reaction when she mentioned her passion for Latin dance. It really made an impact and helped to explain that you can have a career in STEM and have fun, both in and out of work.
It’s really important that girls have inspiring role models in STEM who make them feel that they’ll be welcomed – and that “people like me” can do these jobs.
What role can men play to support women in technology?
This is something I’ve wondered myself – how can we men help, support and encourage more girls and women into STEM, but avoid taking over or diminishing their achievements? There’s no simple answer, but several of the panellists made interesting points.
Carrie Anne Philbin recounted an experience of men at conferences who ignored her to ask questions of her more junior male colleagues – resulting in much awkwardness when they were subsequently introduced to her! For many men this is an unconscious bias that it’s really important we recognise and make the deliberate effort to overcome.
Nicola Combe explained how men have an important role to play in mentoring and supporting, whilst Prof Averil MacDonald advised male allies to use their current privilege to enable change.
Dr Sue Black highlighted the need for male involvement to be flexible. In some situations, such as mentoring, male support can be invaluable. However, in other contexts having women-only groups is the right option.
My take on this was that we men should never assume we know all the answers, or that our help and support is necessary or welcome. If in doubt – ask!
Jacquelyn Guderley stressed the importance of inclusive language and challenging our assumptions in the language we use. Any time we talk about STEM careers, we should make girls feel just as able to do these roles as boys.
Challenging assumptions – language, history and gender roles
This is certainly a bad habit we fall into all too easily – by default referring to a CIO role as “he”, for example – and again we need to make the conscious effort to change.
It’s also important to challenge assumptions in the history of STEM. Largely due to that ongoing unconscious bias, the important role that women have played in research, science and innovation over the centuries has been downplayed.
Just recently, for example, I read about the woman programmers who worked on the ENIAC project for the US military in the 1940s. Their contributions were vital & helped lay the foundation for much modern computing – yet they went largely unrecognised until the 1990s.
On the panel, Dr Sue Black made the point how important it is for us all to learn more about female STEM pioneers and share their stories. STEM has never been a male-only domain, and we need to explain that – again so that girls understand that people like them can do this, and have been for a long time.
Finally there were some fascinating points made about gender roles – and once again, how we should challenge our assumptions.
Kerrine Bryan mentioned how even young children could describe their father’s role – whereas their mother was “just Mum”, even when both parents worked. This is down to how we talk about ourselves and the inherent gender assumptions we make in our language.
It’s vital that we recognise and celebrate women’s professional achievements at home, just as much as in the workplace
Thanks to all the panellists for a very thought provoking session – lots to take away, and to bear in mind for conversations with my daughter in years to come!
Who wants to know more about STEM?