women in computing, teacher, STEMLouise Maynard-Atem, Innovation Specialist at Experian.

Looking at my career to date, I realised that I’ve had roles across the full STEM spectrum; from PhD chemistry research, to analytical roles in central government, an engineering firm and my current data and technology focussed position at Experian.

The lack of gender parity in STEM related careers has been all too apparent to me for many years, but the level of emphasis currently being placed on understanding how to rectify this imbalance, is something that I haven’t witnessed before.

As the saying goes, the first step to fixing an issue is actually acknowledging that the problem exists; a quick look at a newspaper or social media site on any given day will tell you that we as a society have definitely got that base covered. We now need to harness this momentum and shift our focus towards taking concrete steps that improve outcomes for women of all ages.

Currently the tech workforce in the UK is made up of only 17% women, and a lot of research has gone into understanding why this is the case, and what are the specific turn offs for women in this industry. Rather than being the starting point, for me this 17% statistic is in fact the result of a long list of circumstances that start to impact women from a very early age.

In fact, recent research conducted by Microsoft shows that girls start to lose interest in STEM around 10, and children as young as seven are facing limits on their future work aspirations. Research also showed that despite the high priority that is placed on STEM subjects in schools, efforts to expand female interest and employment in this field are not working as well as intended.

There are undoubtedly many reasons behind these trends, but things like lack of confidence, lack of female role models and the way STEM subjects are taught are often cited as key to the drop-off in female numbers. These reasons form three key interventions we need to take to tackle the current STEM pipeline:

  • Normalising women in STEM – I contemplated writing “providing more female role models”, but I feel that normalising women in STEM careers is more all-encompassing. Young girls need to see themselves reflected at all levels of the career ladder, reminding them that there is a place within any field if they really want it. Regular visibility of the women currently in the sector is key, whether that’s through marketing campaigns, speakers at events, on television etc.
  • Mentoring and encouragement – studying STEM subjects can lead to a whole range of different careers that are either directly, or indirectly related. By introducing young women to mentors shows them the wide variety of opportunities that are open to them. This can be done through engagement with schools, or parents taking the lead and introducing their daughters to other women from their network.
  • Interactive learning – examples of STEM subjects, but particularly technology, surround us constantly, and there probably isn’t a day that goes by where these topics don’t touch our lives in different ways. This allows for some really hands on and interactive teaching methods. People of all ages learn better by doing, so it’s vital that STEM subjects are communicated in a way that young girls can both mentally and physically engage with.

On the mentoring and encouragement point, it’s key that those working in STEM fields today (both women and men) pay it forward. We’re all influenced by those that have come before and alongside us, whether that’s in the form of mentorship, sponsorship or peer-review, so we know how valuable these interactions can be.

There are so many ways for us to get involved, whether that’s just engaging young women in your family, or volunteering with specific charities that focus on women in STEM, your time and input could be the spark that encourages a young girl to maintain her passion. I currently volunteer with two organisations, the STEMettes and the Access Project, but these are just two example of ways you can contribute to and engage with the pipeline.

People often ask me how my background in chemistry has resulted in various roles across so many seemingly unrelated fields, and in particular, how I now find myself working at the intersection between data and technology to tackle global financial exclusion.

For me, the logic is quite apparent. The fundamental skills that all STEM subjects teach are to formulate hypotheses, to test and experiment, to analyse data which allow you to draw conclusions, and iterate further based on what you’ve learned. That’s exactly what I do in my job today; I start with my hypothesis of what problems people most want to solve, I (alongside a very brilliant team) then build and test various solutions, all the while getting feedback from the people that the solutions are designed for. I keep going around that loop and constantly improve the offering, such that it drives maximum value for the end user. I certainly couldn’t have predicted that my passion for STEM would have led me here but, I suppose, that’s the beauty of it.

Louise will be speaking at this year’s Women in Data UK event taking place on 28th November in London.