Deputy Chief Executive, Cheri Ashby, writes about girls in STEM for International Women’s Day

Although International Women’s Day wasn’t formally recognised by the United Nations until 1975, the origins of this important day of celebrations date back to 1911.

However, despite more than a century of work to raise the cause of women around the globe, there still remains much work to do within the Further Education sector to open the doors of some of our highest skill needs areas to women.  

In the spirit of the theme of this year’s celebrations, I find myself wondering how can we break down the bias that still exists in areas such as construction and the STEM subjects? 

These is still a smaller percentage of women entering these fields of study. In 2017/18, only 35% of students studying STEM subjects in Higher Education in the UK were women; while only 19% were studying IT and Engineering according to STEM Women. 

This becomes a self-perpetuating cycle as women are sometimes put off studying in these disciplines because they will be in the minority. Which then feeds into the longer-term impact, of course, as fewer people enter these skill sectors, exacerbating the national skills shortage. 

In June 2021 the Institute of Engineering and Technology also released findings in which it estimated there were 173,000 job vacancies in STEM roles in the UK, with an estimated 10 jobs per business.  

Attracting Women into STEM Vocational Learning

So, the question for educators within the FE sector is what more can we do attract women into these areas of vocational learning?

Firstly, girls need to have more opportunities to engage with these subjects when they are in primary school, at an age when their career aspirations are not yet formed. As an FE sector, we need to support and work with our local primary schools to create these opportunities. 

Secondly, the power of role models is an important factor. Having female role models as teachers, parents and industry experts is key. Women in roles at all levels both within education and industry have a powerful influence on whether young women chose these careers. After all, ‘you can’t be what you can’t see!’ 

Next, engaging with female alumni who have careers in these sectors is great at providing inspiration for the next generation. Of course, there is the added value of alumni having ‘walked in the shoes’ of women entering these areas of study. This helps young women to empathise with and understand the unique challenges of entering a male-dominated profession. And in the process it builds their resilience and capacity to stick with it once they are on the inside. 

Another positive action that colleges can take is to have clearly articulated career pathways in these sectors, so that women looking to enter programmes of study can see the full range of opportunities open to them. Supported by role models and alumni, they might be more inclined to think, “this is something for me”. This might make the aspiration feel more achievable and relevant. 

Industry too has a role to play in supporting colleges and schools with mentoring and coaching programmes. This approach can significantly increase motivation as women view these career routes as relevant and accessible. Talent spotting and co-designing and delivering the curriculum with employers can all have a positive impact. 

Astonishingly even in 2022 women make up just 29% of the STEM workforce, whilst 19% of STEM companies’ Boards include women Directors, only 3% of STEM company CEOs are women. 

According to the London International Youth Science Forum (LIYSF), ten years ago we had never heard of STEM jobs. Things like YouTubers, Instagram Influencers, Social Media Managers, Streamers wasn’t in our lexicon. By 2032, ten years from now, some of the Top 10 STEM jobs open to women should include: 

  • Autonomous and Electric Car Engineers 
  • Automated and Robot System Repair 
  • Drone Technicians 
  • Space Exploration 
  • Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality Creators 
  • Green Power Creators 
  • 3D-Printing Engineers 
  • Biotech Engineers 
  • Future Farmers 
  • Science Ethicists 

Coming out of the pandemic…what next?

As we come out of the pandemic, the changing world of work within these industries might also inspire more young women to enter these careers. The IT industry is leading the way with hybrid and flexible ways of working, leading to a better work life balance to the benefit of ourselves and our families and friends alike. 

According to the House of Commons, women should play a central role in the UK’s post-pandemic economic recovery, with evidence revealing companies with more female leaders outperform those dominated by men.  

Speaking about the findings in The Guardian, shadow secretary for women and equalities, Anneliese Dodds, Labour MP for Oxford East, said ‘the data showed women held the key to a stronger economy.’ 

She added: “When you’ve got more engagement from women, when women are in the driving seat to the extent they should be, it makes for far more successful businesses. Our commitment is to consider women’s concerns and other equality issues from the start.”  

I hope that as we celebrate this International Women’s Day, we all look to the things we can do to help break the bias and ensure women play a strong role in filling our future skills gap.