I recently went to my great-niece Sophie’s fourth birthday party, where her friends – both boys and girls –- ran around without a hint of prejudice or discrimination. They were equals.
It occurred to me how this idyll of equality disappears as boys and girls grow into adulthood. If things stay as they are, they will be hugely divided in terms of careers. This is still a world that conditions girls to think they are not as able as boys when it comes to certain things – particularly science, technology, engineering and maths.
In the past 40 years, nothing has changed in the UK regarding equal pay for women – and there is still gender discrimination. If the situation stays the same, in 20 years’ time girls in the UK like Sophie will earn around 20% less than boys in the same year group. She will have less chance of reaching a senior level and being promoted. She will be further disadvantaged if she chooses to become a mother; and will be less likely to achieve a high salary or promotion.
In the UK, just 8.5% of those that study an A-Level in computer science are female. But when girls study science, technology, engineering or maths at GCSE level, they actually do better than boys. Computing and ICT are subjects in which the attainment advantage of girls over boys is noticeably increasing – so why aren’t there more women working in these industries?
Reports show we have a “leaky pipeline” when it comes to women following STEM careers. More girls than boys are studying science at degree level, but this huge pool of female talent gets smaller as careers progress.
The UK workforce is made up of 45% women, but when you look at STEM careers only around 10% of women are managers; only 10% of STEM businesses are owned by women, and the FTSE 100 shows that only 13% of board members are women. Just 30% of the world’s researchers are women too.
These stats might go someway to explain why women in developed countries still earn at least 15% less than their male counterparts. Incredibly, studies have shown that having the same amount of women as men now working in STEM areas in the UK alone would add £2bn to the country’s economy.
The time is ripe for a change, but this is not just about encouraging girls to pursue a STEM career, we need a change in working cultures – and attitudes at the earliest stages of education. Many girls make their career choices by the time they are 14, so positive action must begin at primary school level. When girls are making critical decisions about their careers, mentoring schemes and proper career advice and guidance is vitally important.
Even now, the attitude that boys are “good” at maths and sciences is still too prevalent in some schools. Girls must be encouraged from a very early age, and told that they can excel at every stage. After all, even the smallest interactions can harm the cause: research has shown that fewer female STEM students recall interaction with employers at careers events and during school talks and workshops.
In a report for the Welsh Government, I, with my Cardiff University colleague Professor Karen Holford, wrote of the various ways that more women could be encouraged into STEM careers. But for me, one thing truly stands out: we need heroes.
If we show girls and young women what others have achieved before them, and how women now and throughout history have changed the world, we can inspire them to pursue a STEM career.
Organisations such as WISE, Women in STEM, Soapbox Science and the British Science Association do excellent work in promoting STEM and fostering equality and diversity, as do individual universities in their own right. But to have a face, a name, or even a short biography to aspire to, could change a young girls’ world.
Many of us working in STEM subjects are trying hard to encourage others into the field, taking on leadership positions and trying hard to inspire our fellow and future scientists. This is not just about women giving a helping hand to other women – change requires for men to buy into the project. After all, this is not a problem for women to solve, it is one that the whole of society must address – and having a male viewpoint can only strengthen the equality aim.
When I go to Sophie’s next birthday party, I want to look at those boys and girls playing together and feel reassured that they will all have the same opportunities growing up; that they won’t face discrimination or setbacks in achieving their dreams.
We can create a society where girls contribute equally to building a better world – and the best thing is, it’s not even that hard to do.