Getting wise about women in tech

Brid-Aine Parnell

Thursday 5 February 2015

Britain needs 100,000 new STEM professionals a year and it doesn’t have them. Encouraging girls to become scientists, engineers and technologists could make up the shortfall, and the WISE Young Women’s Board is hoping that its young female role models can inspire the next generation.

The UK doesn’t have enough engineers, scientists and IT specialists. In a 2013 report commissioned by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, Professor John Perkins found that a fifth of jobs in industries like aerospace, computer, electronic and optical engineering were going to immigrant workers, because the UK simply isn’t producing the number of professionals it needs.

Royal Academy of Engineering report forecast that required number to be 830,000 professional scientists, engineers and technologists between 2012 and 2020. So, whether they complete apprenticeships, work their way through the ranks or get a degree, Britain needs around 100,000 new professionals a year.

Professor Perkins and others have pointed out that getting more women into STEM careers could go a long way towards making up the numbers. Although women account for 46 per cent of the UK’s workforce, only around 15.5 per cent of the country’s STEM professionals are female. Perkins’ report highlighted that only one in 10 engineering professionals in Britain were women; the lowest proportion in the European Union.

A number of factors – many starting in school – hold women back from choosing STEM careers, including a poor understanding of what a STEM professional actually does and a lack of female role models in relevant industries. To address this, the WISE campaign has set up a young women’s board of STEM employees, from programmers to systems engineers, to help relate to young girls.

“The whole idea of forming the young women’s board stemmed from the research suggesting that younger women inspire children and young people more than role models who have had a very prolific career and are already advanced in their career,” explains Vedika Dalmia, a member of the new board and a software developer at Bloomberg.

Dalmia was initially educated in India, where children are required to study computer science from around the age of 12.

“I was quite lucky because my school had an excellent computer science department and I had an amazing computer science teacher who really encouraged me to take up the field,” she says.

Dalmia believes female role models are one of the keys to inspiring young people into STEM careers, citing both her female computer science teacher at school and her female dissertation teacher at the University of Surrey as her inspirations.

Sian Cleaver, another WISE board member and mission systems engineer at Airbus Defence and Space, also counts herself lucky that she attended an all-girl school, so was never given the impression that science was a male-dominated field.

“I never noticed it until I went to university and noticed there were a lot fewer women in the lecture theatre than men,” she says. “But, there wasn’t ever an issue really; we just got on with it.”

Cleaver feels that the initial encouragement she got from her parents and her school stopped her forming the idea that STEM subjects weren’t open to women. She also believes that demystifying STEM careers is an important part of the WISE board’s job.

“It’s really hard for girls to actually pinpoint what it is they would be doing if they were an engineer. So I think it’s great that we have such a diversity of women on the board, all with different careers, so we can actually say: ‘This is what I do in my day job, this is why it’s fun, you might want to consider it’,” she pursues.

Cleaver also believes that it’s important to let girls know that there’s more than one way into a STEM career.

“I’ve been told that the graduate scheme [at my company] is fairly well-balanced, but with the apprenticeship scheme, they always struggle to get female applicants,” she states. “I think it’s again this mystery: what does it mean to be an engineer or an apprentice in an engineering company?

“I also think there definitely needs to be a lot more emphasis on apprenticeships – university isn’t for everyone, especially now that university is so expensive,” she adds.

The WISE campaign is aiming to help organisations and companies increase the female employee ratio to 30 per cent by 2020, but it’s a tough target to hit if these employees aren’t supported once they start work. MPs from the Science and Technology Select Committee found last year that ‘biases’ in the workplace and the difficulties of combining a STEM career with family life were keeping many women out of these jobs.

“It is commendable that the government wants to inspire girls to choose science at school,” said committee chair and Labour MP Andrew Miller. “However, such efforts are wasted if women scientists are then disproportionately and systematically disadvantaged compared to men.”

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