Throughout history, women have made significant contributions in human knowledge and, in particular, across the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).
Think about Ada Lovelace, an English mathematician, who is considered to be the founder of scientific computing and the first computer programmer; or Rosalind Franklin, the British chemist and crystallographer, who’s best known for contributing research to clarifying the structure of DNA; or what about Bletchley Park during WWII…where women constituted 75% of the workforce there and were employed to operate the cryptographic and communications machinery, translate documents, and perform traffic analysis. All of which notably contributed to breaking the German code. These were not just prominent women, they were significant contributors to STEM and history on the whole.
But where are the Adas and the Rosalinds of today? They do exist, but as with every previous generation, STEM fields are traditionally male-dominated. According to the Women’s Engineering Society (WES), in 2015 only 9% of the engineering workforce was female. And this is at a time when the UK has a skills shortage and needs to produce thousands more scientists and engineers.
The pendulum is shifting, though. Today women now make up an 11% of the total number of professional engineers, so the rate, although still appalling, is growing. According to the recent WISE campaign, which focuses on gender balance across science, technology, and engineering, 61,430 more women now work in core STEM than previously in 2016. The number of men in core STEM fell by 45,980 in the same period. So, overall, the trends are very positive; with more women working in core STEM than ever before.
Why isn’t there more gender diversity in STEM?
What makes a primary school-aged girl say she’s not good in math or that she’s not as smart as the boys? Why is it that most girls don’t choose to further their math, science, tech, or engineering education in the UK?
At a very young age, girls, on the whole, are socialised to be more interested in dolls and princesses, or the “pink aisle” rather than building structures, creating with chemistry sets, or playing with LEGO.
There are also not enough female role models presented to girls, despite the Adas, Rosalinds, and the Bletchley Park crew. Girls need to see and hear about what’s possible for them in STEM and they need to know they can give it a try. Girls have the aptitude for science, math and tech, they just need the opportunity and a friendly space to give it a try.
Unfortunately, though, there just isn’t enough enthusiasm and encouragement for girls pursing STEM early in their lives. In fact, it’s really only when girls get to secondary school and GCSEs that the option to choose science and engineering is offered; but by that time, the gender stereotyped social norms are set and most girls opt out of the STEM-focused courses. If, however, we can correct the negative perceptions girls develop at younger ages, we can lead them to embrace the sciences and maths in secondary school and beyond.
So, how do we break the pattern and get more girls interested in tech?
Firstly, the role of parents, educators, and other organisational stakeholders needs to focus more on opening the door to a lifetime of STEM learning. We need to start by laying a sounder foundation, earlier. There needs to be more participation in special programs and outreach opportunities for girls (like Fire Tech Camp) to explore the maths and sciences throughout primary school and even nursery.
It’s also about modelling and promoting great role models and mentors for girls – let’s show our girls how many great young women are pursing exciting tech paths and projects. We must generate both the curiosity and desire in our children to wonder, to know the hows and whys of our world, and to encourage them to seek and learn more. Parents can also join their children on the scientific journey. Take on the challenges enthusiastically and solve problems together. A great way to do this is with home projects and toys. For some inspiration, why not try some of these ideas for the holidays.
Traditional STEM topics and courses also need to become more appealing to girls. One of the more recently suggested ways of doing this is by turning STEM into STEAM. It’s proposed that the added ‘A’ offers more aesthetics, application, arts and humanities to the discussion. We agree with Dr. Eric Klopfer, STEAM supporter and director of MIT’s Scheller Teacher Education Program, that “integrating the arts makes STEM more playful, more creative and expressive and opens the domain in terms of appeal to a much broader range of people.” We believe that creativity is critical to tech and innovation and that STEM and arts are a natural mix.
We also believe that our approach of focusing on using tech as a creative and problem-solving tool is one of the reasons that we see better-than-average levels of girls in our classes. It’s reasonable to think that a girl who starts a project with an interest in the design elements can also realise she’s actually interested in the building blocks, the mechanics, and the science behind it all. STEAM is one more pathway for girls into more traditional STEM subjects.
The Future is Brighter with Fire Tech
Fire Tech Camps are one of the great ways to empower girls through STEAM technology education. Women have been at the heart of Fire Tech Camps from the start beginning with our female CEO, Jill Hodges; she’s committed to increasing the number of girls in STEAM and believes wholeheartedly in delivering positive role models.
We look to hire a strong number of tutors and teachers that are female, and we have great representation of female students. Often around 50% of our weekend coding course participants are female. 26% of our advanced Python course participants are female. During the 2017 summer, many of our lead teachers and our Imperial and South Hampstead locations were female. Poonam Elliot was one of the Imperial camp leaders and when asked about girls attending Fire Tech Camp she says, “Girls who come to our camps love getting stuck in and creating with tech. They are inspired and they inspire others. I would encourage girls from all ages to come along to Fire Tech Camp.”
While today men are still over-represented in STEAM, the number of women and girls is steadily growing. The future is promising for girls in STEAM – so, get involved, get educated, get curious and open the door to empower your child and begin building the pipeline of our future STEAM professionals.