Female Careers in Science

Demystifying the world of STEM careers

Article by Abbie Vlahakis, CEO, Millennium Point Trust, Birmingham

Female Careers in ScienceLike many other parents, the world of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and the amazing opportunities it offers our children was unknown to me.

Growing up we were taught core subjects maths and science, but I’d never ‘joined the dots’ between STEM skills and the jobs of tomorrow – there wasn’t a lot out there to help me do that either. Only now do I know that the two are integral to each other.

That all changed when I joined the Millennium Point Trust – it was a proper ‘Eureka!’ moment. STEM careers are so numerous and wide ranging; they are creative; constantly changing (so you’ll never be bored); lucrative; and most importantly, employers are crying out for people with the right skills – so there is an abundance of vacancies.

In a world where we’re all looking to make a difference – be that helping to reverse climate change or create new vaccines, STEM careers are all about solving ‘world problems’.

I understand that STEM careers are not for everyone, but right now there’s not enough information or support out there to help our young people make an informed decision.

As a mother of two boys and a CEO of a STEM charity, let me try and demystify the world of STEM education and careers, and look at how we can play our part to encourage more young people – in particular women – to pursue a career path in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics…

What is the STEM skills gap?

Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) industries are key drivers to the growth of the UK economy. Internationally, these industries are pivotal to what makes the UK one of the most competitive and fastest growing economies globally.

However, with rapid growth comes new job roles and a burgeoning demand for highly skilled workers to fulfil those roles. According to a recent report by the IET, there is an estimated shortfall of 173,000 skilled workers in STEM industries.  Not only does the skills gap cost the UK £1.5bn per year and slow our GD, but it poses a serious risk to deter foreign investment in a post-Brexit era.

The reasons for this gap are numerous and complicated, however, one major reason which I would like to concentrate on, is a severe gender gap in STEM industries.

The Gender Gap

Women account for just 24% of the core STEM workforce. In engineering, that figure drops to 17% and, according to a recent report by WISE, women occupy just 16% of all tech roles. This figure is even less for black and Hispanic women at just 3% and Asian women just 5%.

The gender problem is not exclusive to the workplace. Girls are more likely to feel excluded from STEM subjects at primary and secondary level education. Government research suggests that only 32% girls at KS4 would consider a STEM-related subject compared to 59% of boys. According to recent UCAS data, this trend continues into further education with women accounting for only 35% of undergraduates in STEM education.

The gender gap matters because increasing women in STEM will lead to many benefits, one of them being that it will increase the UK’s labour value by at least £2bn. However, this is being jeopardised due to an array of cultural and environmental factors institutionalised within work and education in the UK which exclude them.

Only through addressing these factors can we hope to close the STEM skills gap and unlock the potential of the UK as a world leader in STEM industries.

We all need to be more proactive to make sure our young people are ready for these exciting STEM careers.

So, what are the barriers to getting more girls to pursue a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths)?

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Understanding the barriers for girls in STEM

To create opportunities, we must first understand what the barriers are in STEM education and STEM careers for girls and women. There is a lot so consider this a summary of some of the more prevalent ones.

Some of these barriers are wider and more universal. For instance, there is an ongoing shortage of qualified teaching staff in the UK. Of those who do teach, there is a high volume who feel ill-prepared and ill-equipped to teach STEM subjects either due to a lack of confidence, resources, or both. This feedback comes first-hand through the Millennium Point Charitable Trusts (MPT) work with over 70 schools in the West Midlands.

Additionally, there’s not enough discourse between STEM industry and STEM education – which means young people, generally, are not aware of the breadth of career options in STEM, such as film productions, digital design, video game design, sound engineering and so much more. Again, this comes first-hand with the young people we work with through our STEM scholarship and grants programmes.

However, speaking specifically on gender, I have found the following to be the most prevalent. There is a lack of female role models – and those that are there, tend to have less visibility than their male counterparts. Similarly, there are a lot of negative stereotypes still around girls in certain STEM subjects, like computing and engineering. Many STEM subjects are also male dominated, causing anxiety and alienation for girls, particularly at secondary level and higher. Lastly, there is a general lack of discourse and encouragement for girls to access and pursue STEM subjects.

In the workplace, further issues include alienating work environments, harassment, and discrimination around subjects such as pay, promotions and maternity. While these issues are prevalent everywhere, they are compounded in STEM industries where the gender balance is more evidently lacking.

Creating opportunities for the next generation in STEM

Firstly, I would say that we all can make a difference – this problem is not exclusively that of the child, the woman, the teacher, the employer, the parent, or the government. Therefore, it is not going to be solved by any one party exclusively either. However, through my experience as CEO of a STEM charity, I can identify a few pieces of advice for creating opportunities for girls in STEM.

STEM Businesses and STEM leaders need to invest and support in our education system. The children of today are your workforce of tomorrow, but they will only get there with your input – whether that is through work experience, workshops, away days or simply providing resources for teachers. Don’t wait to be asked by a school for support, approach them.

Senior Leadership Teams (SLT) in schools need to invest in their STEM curriculum and resources. There are a growing number of organisations, like STEM Learning, WISE and STEMettes who can offer resources to support teaching staff and help engage girls in STEM subjects. Similarly, there are an increasing number of funding pots available – like the grants scheme offered through MPT – which can provide additional opportunity to acquire and invest in STEM materials and extracurricular activities.

Parents need to embrace STEM and understand that ‘go-to’ careers are changing; instead of law and accounting, the careers of the future are in STEM. They’re creative, morally rewarding – and extremely lucrative.

My advice is to encourage your children to explore from a young age. Through my role heading up a STEM charity, I’ve been enriched and inspired as a parent who now recognises the power and value of STEM.

For years, I would hide the screwdrivers to avoid at all costs the dread of being greeted by a pile of screws and unrecognisable fragments of plastic or metal, which in an earlier life may have been a clock, toy car or toy robot. Now, I embrace this curiosity – it’s actually the genesis of someone trying to understand how things work, which leads to finding solutions. These are the very skills which lie at the heart of STEM careers of the future.

We should never underestimate the positive impact on mental wellbeing of problem solving.

Imagine the impact of creating the steam engine or power loom in 18th century Britain, amidst the everyday social depravity and struggles.

Such inventions changed the landscape forever and opened up a wealth of opportunities for a better life.

Fast forward to today; we are in the midst of a digital and technology revolution which is evolving by the day.  If I had my time again, I would definitely be pursuing a STEM career; I would want to be part of this incredible global revolution which promises to be as creative as it is lucrative – and would place me at the heart of a world where I can help solve problems confronted daily by people across the globe.

I did not have such information at hand when I was making my life decisions – but we can all make sure our children – particularly daughters – fully understand these amazing opportunities.

Embrace STEM… it’s the opportunity of a lifetime.

Abbie VlahakisAbout the author

Abbie Vlahakis is CEO of Millennium Point Charitable Trust – a Birmingham-based charity which invests £5m each year to support the growth of STEM education in the West Midlands. Abbie leads the trust and the Millennium Point building, home to event spaces, flexible workspaces and meeting rooms, ThinkTank Science Museum and Birmingham City University (BCU). Commercial activity that takes place in the building feeds back into the Millennium Point Charitable Trust which then donates to, invests in, and facilitates STEM-related projects, events, and initiatives in the West Midlands.