Girls in STEM: Smashing the stereotypes
Women can succeed in STEM. Here's how.
With gender politics high on the news agenda right now we explore why, in 2017, there are still so few girls opting for a career in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM). It’s a key question that regularly rears its head when talking women in STEM.
While much has been done to achieve gender equality in the industry, women are still faced with daily challenges: girls are told they don’t belong; gender bias is well rooted; sexism and machismo are a daily reality; and perhaps most important of all, there’s a distinct lack of role models for girls.
What’s clear is that more visibility needs to be given to the women currently working in those fields to inspire and lead the next generation.
Jacquelyn Guderley is the co-founder of STEMettes, a social enterprise promoting diversity in the industry as well as a leading gender equality advocate.
She takes us through the typical journey of a girl in STEM and offers practical advice to help smash the stereotypes.
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One of my favourite quotes in life is “you can’t be, what you can’t see”. Logically then, you can be what you can see.
This opens up all sorts of doors for people everywhere – from the boy who came from a highly disadvantaged background and gets up to no good at the weekend, to the girl who couldn’t get that C she needed in GCSE Maths to get into college.
Looking beyond the labels
These kids could look at themselves and see “a juvenile delinquent” or “an unintelligent girl who will never amount to anything” because society has always shown them that that’s what happens to people like them.
Or they could think of the book they read, or the film they watched, or the woman that came into their school, or their dad’s friend who helped them see that they could be more than that.
Jobs for the girls
I’ve worked to inspire girls into Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths careers for four years. In that time, I’ve heard girls say “Technology? Why would I be here doing technology?” or “I can’t do computers”, as well as “do you need to be rich to get a tech job here?.”
The people they see as going into STEM careers are anyone as long as it’s not them – or their mum, sister or best female friend. They end up thinking that those things are for boys, even if they seem really cool.
Smashing the stereotypes
The beautiful thing about self-belief, though, is that it can be changed in an instant. Similarly, inspiration can be found in the most fleeting of moments in the most unlikely of places.
This spells good news for girls who can’t see their place in a world of STEM filled by men.
Remembering the pioneers
Through my work at STEMettes, we have brought girls and young women into contact with real-life (heaven forbid!) women who work in science, technology, engineering and maths.
For many of the girls, it was the first time that they had ever met a woman in STEM, or even heard of a woman who worked in a STEM field.
It’s not the lack of historical figures, but of their visibility that impacts the perception of what girls can and cannot do.
If you think about it, there are many women who revolutionised our lives with break-through discoveries and passion for their disciplines.
Any number of things might inspire any one girl. It could be that, in this woman, she sees a woman who is a little like her – maybe she plays football like her, maybe her favourite TV programme is the X-Factor, maybe she loved maths at school too, but couldn’t stand physics.
It is extremely hard to pin down what inspires the girls I have worked with but time after time I saw girls walk into a room feeling completely out of place in a STEM world and walk out feeling as though it could be the perfect place for them.
Because they then found out that they can dare to follow in the path of today’s heroes, from Steve Shirley to Dr Hannah Fry or Marissa Mayer.
And they can make an impact in STEM too, in their own way.
Options for girls
Not all girls will be inspired to follow a STEM path, and nor would we want this. Different types of people going into all sorts of different jobs is what this country and our economy needs.
But we at least need to show girls an open door, not one that is locked tight by the archaic traditions of “boys jobs” and “girls jobs” and preconceived notions of “what girls are good at”.
Girls deserve the same breadth of choice as boys.
So take a moment to think how you could open the door for a girl or young woman you know.
What is something they might never have considered before? What might they like that they might not even know they like?
Find that thing, find those role models that are already forging a path for others, and bring them close to her and let her follow behind in her footsteps.
Once she sees it, she can be it.
The future starts today…
With access to, and conversations with, inspiring role models, girls can start to look beyond the labels.
Self-belief is a beautiful thing and is the first step towards smashing the stereotypes. The future starts right here, right now and 2017 is the year to engage with gender politics in a positive way.
It’s the year to show girls that they have options and to open the door to the inspiring world of STEM.
Are you a women in STEM? Take our survey and let us know what it’s like:
Illustrations and animations by Rafael Varona.