Society’s stereotypes are failing girls and perpetuating the STEM skills gap

Kirstie Jones, Head of HR
11 December 2018
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Kirstie Jones, Head of HR for Rail at Amey, explains why it’s important to engage girls with STEM subjects from an early age. Projects like Amey’s Girlguiding badge are hoping to make a lasting impact on young minds.

A lot of people in industry are talking about the skills gap in engineering and other STEM-related fields. They refer to the fact that we need to focus on young people, especially girls, to help fill this potential gaping hole in the UK economy.

We know this. The cabinet office has released several papers acknowledging the potential wider issues to the UK if these problems aren’t addressed immediately. The government also appreciates it doesn’t have the knowledge or experience to fix this problem and needs support from industry leaders. Whilst many of us are doing our best to get young people interested in STEM subjects, is it actually working?

Times have changed, but the problem has not

The stats have barely budged for 20 years. We still don’t have enough skilled people entering science, technology, engineering and maths. We still don’t have enough women working across the vast and various STEM sectors. We still don’t have enough young people, especially girls, entering STEM apprenticeships, and we don’t have enough students, especially girls, choosing STEM subjects for GCSEs, A Levels or degrees. Regardless of all the great and wonderful existing programmes to get girls into STEM, the pipeline which should result in a take up in STEM careers is still very much disconnected.

We must get to them before society does

So what is it about STEM which creates a distinct lack of interest for girls in particular? And why have we not been able to crack the adverse curse? We need to start from the very beginning, and neurology has a massive part to play. From the moment we’re born, our brain starts to form connections and once they have been created, it is very, very hard to undo. As these connections form, so do our beliefs, and many of these beliefs are repeatedly enforced by our parents, our peers and society in general.

It was common 70 years ago to assume certain job roles were associated with a specific gender. Mechanics were men, and weaving machine operators were women. And even though the world has changed so much, and technology has made momentous advancements, the current consensus remains that STEM is for boys and it’s repeatedly perpetuated through TV shows, children’s story books, and worst of all - STEM sectors themselves.

Start at the very beginning

So how do you combat something that seems almost etched in all our brains from our very birth? We must start engaging with girls whilst they are still young and impressionable. Before they start attributing job roles to genders, and before they decide they’re not interested in the subjects which help advance humanity every single day.

Our partnership with Girlguiding UK has given us access to hundreds of thousands of girls, starting from the age of five, hence given us a chance to make real change. Through our partnership, we have sent out over one hundred thousand badges which help girlguides use maths, engineering and science to create motorised robots from recycled coffee cups, design and build bridges made with straws, and create sensible and smart hazard signs.

When we first created the ‘Guiding Girls into Engineering Badge’ earlier this year, our target was getting it out to 2,500 girls across the country. Since its first release, the badge has been requested over 150,000 times. That’s 150,000 girls who are eager to learn STEM skills outside of their regular learning environment.

We need to rethink the way we’re engaging with young people. We must find a way to make it fun, creative and relatable – because many studies have shown children find it difficult to relate STEM subjects to real life, everyday jobs. We must do more to address the damning STEM skills recruitment crisis which according to STEM Learning, costs the UK government £1.5bn a year – the equivalent of 50,000 average paid jobs!

Creating the change, now

As a cross-sectored industry, we need to work together to truly make a difference. If one organisation can reach 150,000 girls, imagine what 100 could do? We are currently working with Routes into Rail to expand the badge to other youth groups and sharing success across the industry and sectors.

We may not know the true impact of our current engagement now, however, we are at the very least sure we have opened up these young girls’ minds to all the fantastic learning opportunities involving STEM subjects and hope that one day, this will influence their educational choices, apprenticeship decisions, and career goals.


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