Jenny Willott on action to get more girls into science and technology based careers

Teen scientist Alexa Dantzler in the labToday is the first National Women in Engineering Day. This BBC story tells of both the success of apprenticeships (the expansion of which was personally championed by Nick Clegg, and how women are establishing successful engineering careers. Earlier this month, Equalities Minister Jenny Willott launched a project, Opening Doors, aimed at getting more girls into science based careers. The aim is to get women with successful careers into schools to inspire girls to take science subjects and follow them through into university and, ultimately, the workplace.

At the time Jenny spoke to The Debrief about why it was so important to tackle gender based prejudices:

If we don’t do something about this soon, then we risk missing out on the talent of half the population, which has serious implications for this country’s growth,’ she told The Debrief. ‘For Britain to be competitive and for our economy to grow, we need more people going in to high-skilled jobs in STEM subjects. The businesses that work in these areas are telling us that they are desperately short of skills in those particular areas, but there simply aren’t enough women taking on those subjects at the moment. There are no reasons why these subjects are more for boys than for girls, they’re not, and we need keen and enthusiastic girls to be going in a studying in those areas as well.

Girls are bombarded with signals that suggest that science based careers are not for them, says Jenny:

Parents often enforce a stereotype that STEM subjects are hard and not very enjoyable, at the same time that society enforces stereotypes that scientists are predominantly men. This is attitude we’re trying to challenge by introducing women working in STEM industries to school-age girls to show how diverse and exciting these professions can be.

She also talked about how introducing the right for everyone to request flexible working would help:

Flexible working is part of the answer I think we are starting to see some real progress there,’ she explains. ‘From the end of this month, everyone will have the right to request flexible working regardless of whether they’re male, female, young, old, with children or not. Hopefully, we’ll begin to break down some of the stigma that some women feel when they ask for time off or to work from home for childcare. Hopefully it will become much more normal for everyone to work flexibly, which might help not only encourage women to get into STEM professions, but possibly keep them there as well.

The Scottish Liberal Democrat Conference passed a motion calling for a wide range of action to get more women into Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. I spoke in that debate citing examples of talented young women I know who have established successful careers and who are inspiring other women. The first is someone I met on Twitter as a fellow Formula 1 fan as she graduated 5 years ago. She then went to work for the Renault F1 team and got involved with a project called Ingenious Women which has similar aims to Opening Doors. On her page there, she talks about how she found her way into her job:

I spent the summer between AS & A Levels looking through university prospectuses, intending to do something like a maths degree. It was then that I came across a few universities that offered Motorsport Engineering – it might sound silly but I didn’t realise that you could actually do a degree focused on this industry. This is what motivates me to raise the profile of engineering as a career, because all young people should be aware of the endless opportunities that are open to them.

I decided on studying at Oxford Brookes because of the excellent links with the industry, which has paid dividends. During my course I did a sandwich year at BMW MINI, which was great fun, as well as gaining my first taste of F1 with a couple of summer holidays spent working at Williams F1. I have found the work experience vital to my career – not only did it focus my mind so I know what areas of the automotive and motorsport industries I would like to work in, but I have also learnt a great deal as not everything can be taught from a text book.

I’d advise anyone considering a career in engineering to do it – there are so many different opportunities that there is something for everyone.

I first came across Sophia George when she led her Team Swallowtail to victory in the Dundee based international gaming competition Dare Protoplay in 2011. She went on to be the first Games Designer in Residence at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London before returning to Dundee to continue developing her Strawberry Thief game.

These two young women show the diversity of opportunities available in the science and engineering sector. Let’s hope they and others like them inspire many more into those fields.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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20 Comments

  • Peter Watson 23rd Jun '14 - 4:13pm

    I don’t think the problem is with girls going into STEM subjects per se, but the narrower range they choose (or are steered towards). It seems that the biological sciences, including medicine and veterinary medicine, are attractive to girls who have an aptitude for science subjects, but the “TEM” part of STEM is still overwhelmingly male.

  • Stephen Hesketh 23rd Jun '14 - 9:40pm

    Hmmm. I think the problem is not the lack of girls going into science, technology, engineering etc but the lack of young people generally going into these areas. Until we value these areas as much as banking, media studies, law, the arts generally, we are going to struggle to compete as a manufacturing and innovation-led economy.

    Irrespective of gender, students taking practical courses should receive a significant reduction in their tuition fees.

  • Eddie Sammon 23rd Jun '14 - 10:27pm

    We shouldn’t be sounding like we don’t value stay at home parents or women going into other fields by saying “If we don’t do something about this soon, then we risk missing out on the talent of half the population”. There is a suspicion that Lib Dems don’t value stay at home mothers enough and this doesn’t help.

    The status quo of sending mothers on benefits to work and making their wages go on childcare also seems unacceptable. I don’t think they should have to go to work, but if they do then the childcare should arguably be free. There seems to be a bit of resentment about the current situation.

    The liberal position should broadly be freedom of choice and respecting those choices.

    Best wishes

  • Eddie Sammon raises an interesting point. How do we allow people to be free to make their own choices about who cares for their children. Should we pay parents the cost of the childcare they need to go out to work full time and then let them decide if they are going to use it to pay for childcare or to enhance their family budget so a parent can stay home more?

    Often it is poverty that forces both parents to work when if they were not so poor they would choice for one of them not to work (or for one of them to work only part-time). As liberals shouldn’t we be doing something about this poverty so they are not so enslaved?

  • Eddie Sammon 24th Jun '14 - 2:33am

    When it comes to getting more women into STEM careers I’m all in favour of it, but there’s only so much a government should do. This was the original point I wanted to make, but I was “derailed” by the comment about half of the population’s talent being wasted. I know she didn’t mean this literally, but it taps into a wider problem of undervaluing women who aren’t very career driven.

    I’m not going to be lecturing feminists about women being undervalued, I just think on this specific issue I have a point and it seems to have contributed to the present situation of sanctioning single mothers into work.

    Regards

  • I work in this area and see the number of women increasing. That is in the physical sciences as well

    The problem though with this so-called STEM sector is not due to gender imbalances it is, as Stephen Hesketh says, the UK completely undervalues the benefits of encouraging good scientists, engineers etc

    Can someone explain to me why any numerate, logical thinking scientist would go into this sector with poor job security and pay when they could go into another sector and apply their skills to playing with money or other ‘service sector’ jobs?

    No way would I encourage any child of mine to follow in my steps ! Why should they be expected to work on poor wages just because some politician, who I would say knows nothing about the sector, thinks we need to.

    How many politicians have any idea of what it means to be a scientist in the UK ? Poor recognition, ignorant pronouncements from people who haven’t studied science since they were 16 years old……what did Jenny Willott study? How many MPs and ministers studied a physical or natural scientific discipline at University

    We have to put up with politicians and the media daily showing their ignorance of scientific thought but then are told we are geeks and biased when we point out this ignorance.

    My message is to anyone, man or woman – if you want to do science go abroad and if you want to stay in the UK use your brains for something else and don’t be undervalued

  • Tsar Nicholas 24th Jun '14 - 10:17am

    Given the poor job prospects and the massive amount of student debt which will make it difficult for new graduates to get mortgages, I would say that this initiative is doomed to failure.

  • Tsar Nicholas 24th Jun '14 - 10:21am

    @bcrombie
    “What did Jenny Willot Study?”

    Her first degree was in Classics, and her Master’s was in Developmental Studies.

  • Matthew Huntbach 24th Jun '14 - 11:23am

    Peter Watson

    It seems that the biological sciences, including medicine and veterinary medicine, are attractive to girls who have an aptitude for science subjects, but the “TEM” part of STEM is still overwhelmingly male.

    I don’t think this is just a gender issue. There’s also a social class issue. Somehow, becoming a medical doctor is seen as higher up the social class ladder than becoming an engineer. In my experience there is very strong pressure on anyone who is good at science at school to go into Medicine. The consequence is that university Medicine departments have their pick of those with the top A-levels, while Engineering departments at the same university are often struggling to fill their places and have to accept medium grade A-levels.

  • Matthew Huntbach 24th Jun '14 - 11:34am

    bcrombie

    Can someone explain to me why any numerate, logical thinking scientist would go into this sector with poor job security and pay when they could go into another sector and apply their skills to playing with money or other ‘service sector’ jobs?

    Well, that’s pure science. In what I teach, which is advanced computer programming as part of a Computer Science degree programme, I have recruitment agencies telling me they have a well-paid job for anyone who gets a good grade in my module. Employers are simply unable to find enough people with the skills.

    OK, you may say, so why is it that Computer Science has a reputation as a subject whose graduates have a high level of unemployment? It has much to do with my previous comment – we struggle to fill our places with school-leavers who have the best qualifications for it, and often have to take on those who have mediocre grades or the wrong sort of subject. Schools think (wrongly) that Computer Science is what they call “Information Technology”, and that’s a subject you put the academically less able into. Combine this with the attitude that it’s bad to fail people, and we end up churning out graduates who don’t really have the skills the degree title suggests. See this well-known article.

  • Matthew Huntbach 24th Jun '14 - 12:29pm

    Jenny Willott

    Parents often enforce a stereotype that STEM subjects are hard and not very enjoyable, at the same time that society enforces stereotypes that scientists are predominantly men. This is attitude we’re trying to challenge by introducing women working in STEM industries to school-age girls to show how diverse and exciting these professions can be.

    How very patronising. “These subjects are hard, so they’re not suitable for girls, so we have to package them up in a pretty way”.

    Sorry, YES THEY ARE HARD. Which doesn’t mean they aren’t suitable for girls.

    The fact is that science, technology and engineering subjects do involve abstraction and mathematical reasoning, there is no way round that. This is something which many people do find hard – they hit a barrier and give up. You need to appreciate that and be able to push yourself to get over that barrier to succeed. I think it is a mistake to hide that and push the glamorous aspect of what you can achieve once you have that basic abstract understanding. I’ve seen far too many students take it on and then give up early because they weren’t prepared to put in the work it involves.

    The image of what university study is about is dominated by how it is put across in the media, and those who work in the media almost always come from an arts background. Look at any of the “What university is like” supplements that will appear in the quality press over summer and see that – it’ll be full of people writing about essay-based subjects and hardly anything about lab-based subjects. So they’ll put across the idea that the first year is easy, you can just have fun and do a bit of light reading and pass the exams by last minute cramming to progress. Well, maybe you can in the subjects the journalists took, but it doesn’t work like that in my subject where the first year is where the abstraction barrier is hit, and revision is useless, the only way to succeed is constant hard work from the start. I’ve never once seen this explained in a newspaper “guide to university” supplement, instead in all those things science and engineering is hardly mentioned, students taking those subjects are just shadows in the background.

    But, hey, some of us actually enjoy that type of thing, I mean the abstraction part. I hope Jenny Willott doesn’t think you have to have a Y chromosome to be one of them.

  • Matthew

    I accept your points, as is mostly the case on here, and accept your comment that there are differences between sectors

    Engineering is a difficult subject and, in my company, 60% of the chemical engineers we have recruited are women – no problem with their aptitudes or desire. I imagine they find the challenge of logic, abstraction and practicality challenging and, may I say it, fun. Engineers are relatively well paid, however, compared to purer scientists such as chemists and physicists. Most of those are stuck in poorly paid and unrewarding chose that are more career minded got out years ago. Compare us to how the Germans, Chinese and Indians treat their scientists

    The problem is that the politicians, such as Ms Willotts, have no idea about science or how it feels to be one in a country which prefers the ‘amateur’ rather than the ‘expert’ – we can see Nigel Lawson trailed out to comment on Global Warming and be allowed to challenge scientific findings for which he has no idea.

    Science is based on challenge and scientists will always find something to argue about on any subject but they need to have a base understanding of the concept.

    I have no personal gripe against Jenny Willotts – I am sure she means well – but she also is only looking at it from the ‘woman’ side as she has not idea what the ‘scientist’ part consists of

    At the end we should be training less scientists and engineers because there are not the jib or prospects for them – even after a 10 year degree, PhD and post-doc

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 24th Jun '14 - 8:58pm

    Eddie, if you have a look in many major toy shops, you’ll find out that toy are generally split into two. There’s the horrid pink aisles where there are assortments of dollies and puppies and little animal thingies to dress up and then there’s the aisles marketed at boys where all the interesting stuff is. Seriously, it really is that bad. We never went in for all that gender stereotyping rubbish, so we had the little ponies and the science kits. And we have a teenager who wants to be an actor, so there will be no more scientists from this house.

    The serious point, though, is that girls are often steered away from these subjects by parental, societal and media pressure – which is a bit daft.

    bcrombie has a point about the lack of scientists in Parliament – so I’m sure he’d be interested in keeping one of the best, Julian Huppert, in there…

  • Stuart Mitchell 24th Jun '14 - 11:23pm

    “Eddie, if you have a look in many major toy shops, you’ll find out that toy are generally split into two. There’s the horrid pink aisles where there are assortments of dollies and puppies and little animal thingies to dress up and then there’s the aisles marketed at boys where all the interesting stuff is. Seriously, it really is that bad.”

    Horrid? That’s being very dismissive of a lot of things that many girls like to do. There are plenty of horrid things in the boys’ aisles (guns and other violent stuff).

    Actually toy shops are not generally split in two. They are split in three, with most aisles containing things that appeal to both genders. It’s also a myth that science toys are marketed predominantly at boys – they are just as likely to feature girls on the packaging, as anyone can prove for themselves by visiting the website of any well-known toy retailer.

    Whatever holds girls back in later life, it isn’t the toys they play with when young, so let’s not give them a complex about it – girls have enough to worry about without being told that the toys (and even colours) they like are somehow going to hold them back in later life.

  • Eddie Sammon 24th Jun '14 - 11:53pm

    Caron, I’m beginning to be won over on the gendered toys argument! It’s not really freedom of choice to say these are for boys and these are for girls. On Sunday I seen a little boy delighted to be pushing a doll around in a pram, it wasn’t pink, but it shows dolls are not just for girls! Parental duties are not just for women!

    I don’t really like authoritarian action, but I imagine if I were a woman it would “do my brain in” to just stay at home with the children all day, so these notions should be challenged!

  • Cron

    No problem with Julian Huppert – someone I have a lot of time for and a scientist to boot!

    Evan Harris was a true loss to the HoC – perhaps his sardonic and forensic pulling apart of certain of the latest ‘fads’ was also amusing and interesting to watch

    Trouble with scientists – good ones will be firm and clear in what they say but will always be open-minded and be difficult to pin down to giving a black/white answer – the reason being they rarely exist. The problem with that is that we can appear indecisive

    When a scientist does make a firm statement – for example Dawkins about the existence of a God (although his true opinion is more akin to the one I mentioned above and he goes into it in depth in the God Delusion with his scale of agnosticism) then we are called dogmatic

  • Eddie Sammon 25th Jun '14 - 9:38pm

    Good article by Jenny Willott in the Huffington Post today. It says Gender Equality can’t just be for women, but she makes the case in a positive way.

    I, as someone who has been an arch enemy of feminism, am attracted to a positive case for more gender balance. We shouldn’t be liberals in other areas but not in the home. This should be the example to follow for gaining more support among men and women for gender equality.

    The link is here:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/jenny-willott/gender-equality-women_b_5526022.html?utm_hp_ref=uk

  • daft ha'p'orth 25th Jun '14 - 10:35pm

    I suggest Jenny Willott also looks into how to get more women to return to the science and technology based careers for which they trained. No, mostly they aren’t leaving to have children and be housewives. They’re leaving because STEM research has, as bcrombie says, bugger-all future. They go to other fields, where you can hope for a contract that isn’t essentially an internship of a couple of years in length.

    Fund STEM properly. Or accept that it’s not a very attractive career direction.

    Yeah, computing is a little bit different in that there are well-paid computing-related jobs. As well as ageism, and dudebro programmers and all the rest of the BS we have imported from the US to make computing an unexciting place to be.

  • daft ha'p'orth 25th Jun '14 - 10:52pm

    Also, Eddie, thanks for the link to the article. The bit about men taking parental leave is particularly interesting to me: I’ve found that many of the ‘researcher couples’ I know have chosen to share out their parental responsibilities, with both individuals reducing their hours slightly and working flexitime. This struck me as a pretty smart way to go about it, as both individuals remain research-active, but having moved to another university recently I’ve discovered that, unfortunately, not all institutions are equally disposed to support that sort of arrangement. If you didn’t personally give birth to it, there is an attitude in some institutions that you shouldn’t be spending time on it. And yet it’s good for parents, institution and child; the child gets to spend time with both parents, the parents both get to keep their careers on track and the institution gets happy, fulfilled employees with something to put into the next REF.

  • Eddie Sammon 25th Jun '14 - 11:57pm

    Hi Daft, no worries, I like to provide credit where it is due and gender roles is one of the areas of politics I am most interested in. I think much more progress can be made if men and women talk about how gender roles are oppressing men and women, rather than go along with the narrative that men are the oppressors and women are the victims or do as the right does and promote the idea of endless work or child-caring as a path to a fulfilled life.

    Regards

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