Pami Deol and Tricia Kosuth-Phillips, lecturers in computer science at Cheshire College – South & West, provide insight into how we can help more girls and women get into STEM, with particular focus on computing technology.

Pami and Tricia discuss the need for greater intervention in attracting women into STEM, both at school and adult level and the unique skills and perspectives women can bring to the field. They also outline key recommendations for improving female accessibility in computing and tech and explore the future of STEM for women.

 Attracting more girls into STEM

Over the last few decades, the number of women in STEM has been steadily growing. According to STEM Women, in the six years between 2016 and 2022 alone, the number of women working in the various fields has increased by 216,552. However, to continue the growth of female participation in these sectors, we need to do a great deal more to help women of all ages enter STEM and inspire future generations.

One of the most effective ways to do this would be to introduce forums to schools that could provide a space where dialogue can be initiated between industry-based mentors and girls at secondary school level. Talking with a role model who’s achieved success in STEM in this setting will greatly improve the belief and interest girls have in pursuing courses and careers across these sectors.

The organisation of more external and internal practical workshops would complement these forums. Teachers and mentors can collaborate to provide project-based learning opportunities that allow students to apply STEM concepts in creative and innovative ways as a means of promoting the diverse career opportunities available. Girls will ultimately be more engaged in STEM if they have the opportunities to work on projects and solve real problems and discover the skills that they possess.

There are plenty of potential career paths that students can take from STEM subjects. Computer science students, for example, have the capability to embark on a range of careers, from cloud computing to digital marketing, thanks to the skills they’ll accrue over the course of their studies. However, in order to attract more women into these sectors, we have to start improving awareness of the different career opportunities available and its vital that we promote them better at secondary school age, crucially, before they choose their GCSE options.

STEM needs diverse skills and perspectives

Women play an invaluable role in all sectors of STEM, bringing with them a unique set of natural skills and perspectives that make them ideally suited to a career in these industries. In the computing sector, you’ll find that many women thrive in roles such as systems analysts due to the creative mindset that they often possess, as well as their capability to approach problems with outside-the-box thinking which can complement a more logical, fixed perspective.

Adaptability is a brilliant trait to have when it comes to working in STEM and many of the women and girls who’ve enrolled on the computing courses at the college have this in abundance. The skills they’ve learned in a computing-based setting can be transferred into other areas such as robotics or engineering, which broadens their career pathways. Additionally, we find that women tend to be strong collaborators and team players, qualities that can be particularly valuable in STEM fields where interdisciplinary teamwork is often essential for success.

The unique skills and perspectives that women bring to the table is exactly why gender balance is important. Having a diverse range of voices coming together in a team is essential when it comes to solving complex problems across all STEM fields.

Changing policy

Women of all ages are of real value to the STEM sectors and it’s important that they’re able to access an educational pathway that leads them into industries such as computing, and tech. T Levels are a brilliant qualification to gain for young women aged 16-18, as it gives them an excellent opportunity to access university and a role in STEM. However, for prospective female students aged 19 and above who are looking to enrol on a STEM subject, their options are limited now that the BTEC level 3 program is no longer in place. Currently, if they don’t attain a grade 4 or above in maths and English until after they turn 19, they could find getting in to the industry tricky due to a lack of progression opportunities beyond BTEC level 2.

Additionally, while the EDSQ (Essential Digital Skills Qualification) is a good qualification for adults, it won’t get them into university. Without more post-19 course in place that offers higher level qualifications, women who come from different pathways will be hindered. So, we would certainly recommend introducing courses that give adults the chance to access a broader range of qualification levels and provides them with the educational route that they need to ultimately achieve the career in STEM that they want.

The future of women in STEM

When it comes to getting more women into STEM, we’re certainly heading in the right direction. In 2022, women made up 26.9% of the core STEM workforce, compared to 19% a decade earlier, so it’s clear that progress is being made. From a computer science perspective, we welcome the government funding a lot more computing devices in schools and placed greater emphasis on coding. This has really helped the subject to move from the peripheries and into the mainstream and become more accessible. Indeed, as technology and computing grow and becomes even more ubiquitous, we’re confident that the interest girls have in this aspect of STEM will continue to grow with it.

However, we must nurture this interest. Women are naturally technologically adept and we’re so fortunate that there are so many fantastic tech role models out there for young girls such as Sheryl Sandberg and Susan Wojcicki, as well as so many YouTubers who are harnessing computing technology to make a career. It’s important that we signpost what’s possible with STEM to make it a more desirable educational pathway.

This signposting needs to take place in schools in the form of initiatives that can engage and inspire female pupils. We understand that there’s limits to funding but there are ways of circumventing this, such as further education facilities running STEM days for local schools. Talks from industry figures in schools is also a crucial tool when it comes to inspiring young women into science, technology, engineering, or maths, because we’ve seen the impact this has on female students. Hearing from a successful woman in one of these industries can have a profound effect on young girls as they can see what’s achievable. Additionally, through the power of social media, women of all ages are recognising that a career in STEM is possible, but we need to make sure the qualifications and support systems are in place to help them make this career change.

We’re moving in the right direction but now is the time to press the accelerator on doing all we can to help make STEM as accessible as possible for young girls and women. The groundwork is being laid but let’s make sure it’s being done correctly.