female scientist looking at microscope slide, women in STEM

Article provided by Ewa Ambrosius, Associate Engineer, Perega

I recently read an article in the FT about the book Confidence Culture by Shani Orgad and Rosalind Gill, which explores how some organisations excuse the lack of women making significant career progression, by turning the mirror back on women themselves, citing low self-esteem and imposter syndrome.

Rather than engage in any meaningful introspection, this view means companies can continue operations as usual, undervaluing women and reinforcing inequality. The article references a number of other authors who write about confidence at work, including one who notes a tendency for leaders to mistake the trait for competence.

It got me thinking about the ongoing challenges STEM companies and leaders have trying to recruit more women, and the way that, as they progress through secondary school, girls become increasingly less likely to consider a career in engineering. I found myself asking the question: do leaders in schools and workplaces unintentionally discourage girls and women from pursuing STEM subjects, and jobs, by projecting their assumptions about what competence and enthusiasm should look like?

Uncivil engineering

My university experience was a wake-up call to blatantly sexist attitudes towards women in engineering. While the course itself had a good proportion of women (40% approx.), the lecturers were all men with outdated, traditional views. Alongside generally less support, we had to put up with jokes about how we, as women, wouldn’t finish the course. I can tell you, it required a thick skin to put up with, and complete, the five-year master degree course.

This was a stark contrast to high school, where I had the support of fantastic teachers who opened our eyes to a wide range of subjects and possibilities, regardless of our gender. An environment where we weren’t discouraged from anything.

While STEM outreach, such as careers activities, makes a demonstrable, positive difference to young people’s interest in engineering, I wonder what impact it would have if teachers and business leaders took the time to reflect on their own behaviours and interactions, and how they might be influencing the interests and success of those around them.

Leaders, over to you

With that in mind, here are a few steps leaders can take to encourage girls and women in STEM:

  • Challenge your assumptions about what competence and interest look like

Don’t fall into the trap of confusing confidence with competence. Look for other indicators of a creative, engineering-led mind and find moments to celebrate these. Is a student good at thinking outside the box, proving themselves, representing problems and solutions visually? Just because they don’t shout about it, doesn’t mean they aren’t talented or interested. Sometimes it’s the quiet student at the back of a classroom who never puts up their hand who is absorbing the most, eager to learn more. Unless teachers actively find ways to engage with them, there’s a good chance that interest will wane.

The same goes in the workplace. Leaders should consider different ways of enabling employee contributions. Meetings, whether online or in person, can unintentionally silence some voices. Is there a way to get feedback over email, or in smaller or one-to-one discussions?

  • Take an active, holistic approach to assessment and appraisals

Despite a widespread understanding that it’s not best practice, assessment methods in schools, and even the workplace, continue to be relatively limited and, subsequently, exclusionary.

While there are increasingly more pathways for students at college which assess coursework rather than exam performance, there is little variety in earlier Key Stages. I believe many STEM teachers would uncover hidden interests and abilities if they broadened their assessment toolkit to appeal to more learning types.

At work, managers should seek to paint a fuller picture when undertaking employee appraisals. This might mean: collecting client or customer feedback, making time for one-to-one discussions with employees for performance analysis, and creating regular opportunities for immediate feedback, as opposed to annual or biannual meetings.

  • Make small changes with the potential for big differences

The pandemic fast forwarded the shift towards remote and hybrid working, putting the spotlight on the ways in which flexible working can improve female progression and participation at work. Offering flexible start and finish times and compressed hours, a range of options for social or training events and adopting asynchronous meetings can help support not just women, but all employees with their personal responsibilities and mental wellbeing. However, flexible and hybrid working should be implemented carefully, with a plan to mitigate potential issues such as proximity bias.

While there’s less opportunity and demand to offer similar flexibility in schools, STEM teachers can consider flexibility around when extracurricular activities are offered. If after school activities have low female attendance, try rescheduling to before school or during lunchtime. During lessons, take a structured approach to group activities, strategically assigning responsibilities to ensure boys and girls alike have the chance to try different roles.