A shortage of women in STEM – how do we crack the problem?

Kate Anderson

Kate AndersonReading Amy’s blog about her experience as an apprentice (Great blog Amy!) got me thinking again about how we can fix a problem that I blogged about back in February,  the dearth of women in  STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). This had been prompted by a marvellous advert I’d seen for Oakland-based start-up toy company, Golidblox’s engineering toys.

One of the big questions is just how we expect girls to want to engage with STEM subjects if they are being conditioned from such an early age to see this as something strictly for the boys?

As UK MP engineer (and female), Chi Onwurah, who earlier this year called a parliamentary debate on gender-specific toy marketing, puts it:  “We have some big economic problems and one is a huge skills shortage in engineering and technology. There are thousands of jobs going unfilled . . . and the lowest proportion in Europe of women who are professional engineers.

Toys are so important and formative and for me this is about the jobs of the future, about what happens in 10 or 15 years’ time.  We can’t go on with a segregated society.”

With this in mind, I’ve been keenly following the Let Toys be Toys campaign which, since its inception in 2012, has convinced major UK retailers including Boots, Toys R Us, M&S to remove boys and girls signage on toy displays.  Play Unlimited is doing the same in Australia.  All steps in the right direction, but there is sadly no US equivalent and the clear use of pink and blue to strictly delineate between “girls” and “boys” toys continues to be the clearest signage of all.

Kate AndersonLet’s image we fix the issue with toys, what about when these uninhibited girls get older?  I was delighted to stumble across The Smallpiece Trust, an independent educational charity that runs hands-on Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) activities and engineering courses for pupils in Years 6-12.  They’re working alongside the Arkwright Scholarships Trust to support older children and young people in engaging with engineering.  They’re not just focusing on girls and women* (nor should they) but do recognise that there is a particular need to focus on supporting female future engineers.

The Smallpiece Trust’s Girls Engineering the Future focuses specifically on helping girls and young women discover engineering as a career.  Check out their video and just what this means in practice on their website (www.girlsengineeringthefuture.org).  The reason Amy’s blog got me thinking about this is that this is just the kind of area where apprenticeships can really work – this video re the apprentice scheme at Network Rail really brings that to life.

Alone, focusing on gender bias in toys and toy advertising and promoting engineering to girls and young women via access courses, sponsorship and apprenticeship isn’t going to crack the problem.  But it’s a good start.  Out of small acorns mighty oak trees could stem (pardon the pun).