You don’t have to go too far back in time to when science, technology, engineering and maths were largely seen as subjects for boys to study at school and to work in as men.
In those days very few girls studied the topics we now call STEM subjects. In turn, it meant there were few women in construction, technology, research and architecture. So, the talents and skills of half the population were largely lost to some of the most important sectors of UK industry.
Nowadays, there’s still some pockets of outdated thinking that says women aren’t cut out to succeed in STEM roles. But thankfully there’s been a big change in the 20 years that I have been working in Technology which means there’s a lot more encouragement for women who want to study and work in STEM areas.
But is there still a sense that women don’t feel comfortable in jobs using STEM skills? How can we ensure these outdated perceptions die out? That’s particularly important right now given the huge demand for qualified STEM talent. Encouraging more women to get involved isn’t a nice gesture – it is an absolute necessity.
To start with we need to expose girls to wider career choices and make it clear why STEM subjects are important to reinforce the message that there’s no reason why they can’t take them up and thrive. We all know technology is ubiquitous in modern life and most people are pretty sophisticated users compared to 15 years ago, so that’s a head-start! I’d also advise any girl that curiosity is essential – it’s at the root of how I developed my career.
I recently spoke to a group of students at an HSBC graduate programme recruitment event. What came across to me was the lack of clarity around how to get into a role as a developer and I think that’s a real problem. There are so many variations of roles in technology and it’s a minefield of what roles to choose. My suggestion to the group was to gain exposure to multiple roles and programming languages and attend grad-focused hack days to spend time with developers. Overall, they need to get experience in multiple roles to find one they feel they can align with.
Whatever your age, having role models to look up to and follow is very important. It’s clear that there are not enough women role models in STEM roles to talk about their experiences and help shape this area and show potential career paths for the 16-year-olds in the UK. In turn this will in turn filter to the next generation as they start their careers.
The good news is there has been a lot of improvement over the past few years with companies encouraging grads to join their programmes and carving out a career path into STEM roles. There are so many great events throughout the year and we have to make people aware of them. My 19 year-old-daughter is studying English Literature at university and I want to expose her to potential opportunities. I appreciate that in my job I have the advantage of tapping into my networks but there are a growing number of groups that cover specific sectors and of course anyone can search online for something that suits them.
And let’s not forget that there’s a chunk of people who are already working in other areas who are moving into IT because it is an increasingly dominant factor in our lives. There is so much more we can do in this space and not only do we need to encourage the workforce of the future to embrace STEM roles but we also need to help people who are working already on other sectors to move over into this area.
We will only know that we have been successful in encouraging others into STEM subjects when this is no longer a topic of conversation. We’re not there yet by any measure.