tech role models

A key part of my role at STEM Ambassadors is to champion the diversity of our everyday role models.

These are normal people, living a normal life doing a STEM job. If we want to ensure we boost the take up of STEM roles among girls we need make sure they see these jobs as achievable. We certainly need to move the narrative on from saying there aren’t any or enough girls doing STEM roles. In highlighting the problem – we can inadvertently have the opposite effect by making them think they need to be exceptional and discourage them from pursuing this path.

One of the beauties of STEM is that there isn’t one way to get there. STEM offers university routes, apprenticeship routes, on the job routes and these routes are open to people of all ages, at any time in their life. But it is a lot to get your head round. I’ve had nine jobs since leaving university, none of which I knew existed when I was at university, let alone when I was in school. So how can we expect a teacher who hasn’t worked or even applied for jobs in STEM to be able to fully convey to young people all the opportunities that STEM affords?

The great thing about highlighting everyday role models is that they show young people the realities of working in STEM. This includes the different pathways they can take and that just because you study physics or computer science, it does not necessarily mean you will only work as a physicist or a computer scientist. Look at my career. I’m an engineering graduate who has worked in education since I graduated. I have not worked directly in engineering but I can say with absolute certainty that I have used an engineering way of thinking in every role I have ever held. It taught me more than just the subject, it taught me problem solving, enquiry and creativity.

Shifting the narrative

I finished my degree in 2000 and having been offered a project job at the university I was also offered the chance to complete a PhD (part-time). I wanted to do a PhD about female engineers because there weren’t as many females as males and I wanted to understand why. However, after three years doing the degree I was already frustrated by the narrative which, in simplest form, was that there were no women in engineering and that wasn’t true. We may not have been abundant in numbers but there was a good group of us. Thus I aimed my PhD at those women that do study engineering at university and what we can learn from them, rather than focusing, again, on why they don’t.

This viewpoint has fuelled my entire career. If I am working with young people or teachers on engineering or STEM activities I don’t discuss the gender issue unless they specifically ask. I, and it’s a personal choice, prefer not to do girls only events because I feel it says that girls need extra support, or girls can’t do STEM with boys around. Plus, I think boys need to know it’s normal for girls to do these subjects too.

Motivations of girls

I get asked a lot about what steps you can take to motivate girls to be more interested in STEM. What can we do to make it more interesting for them. My personal view is that the focus should be how can we showcase the phenomenal variety of STEM to appeal to all young people. Focusing on gender means that you’re likely to rely on stereotypes and generalisations, which is what we’re trying to avoid in doing these STEM engagements. All girls want to help people, all boys like fast cars, these are far too generalised statements and are often not true. Instead, we should show young people the many different job roles in STEM, the many different applications of their school learning and the many different people that do these jobs. This approach will mean there is much more chance of finding the right hook for every young person.

It’s also not about one interaction and the jobs done. It’s about repeated interactions throughout the duration of a young person’s school years from a range of people. Showing them again and again how STEM is used helps to strengthen the idea of the purpose of STEM and the opportunities within it. It may not be needed for those young people that already love STEM or have a clear idea of what they want to do for a job. Instead we should think about the huge middle ground of those that aren’t sure, haven’t grown up surrounded by STEM people and for whom it is more of an unknown and therefore a risk. Not to mention those that find these subjects more difficult and will have to really work hard to do well in the subjects at school. They need regular motivation and regular encouragement and that can come from frequent STEM engagements throughout their school years.

Practical and exciting opportunities in STEM

STEM fits in to so many jobs and so many industries it’s really hard for even someone like me, to be able to list everything you can do with STEM knowledge and skills. But I can say for sure that STEM’s main purpose is to help us. To help humans, and animals and the Earth, to live better lives, in many, many ways. What new opportunities will there be in twenty or even ten years’ time as more and more STEM advancements are made? I think these are the unifying messages we should bring to the table to boost interest in STEM. By not fixating on gender we are more likely to achieve the outcome we want. Namely increasing the numbers of all young people, including girls, in studying STEM and becoming the next everyday heroes.

Dr Kerry BakerAbout the author

Dr. Kerry Baker is a leading authority on science communication and getting more girls studying STEM. As the Strategic Initiatives Lead at STEM Learning Kerry Baker supports cohesive working, collaborations, new initiatives and dissemination of good practice and success stories. She is an engineer by education and completed a PhD on why women study engineering. Her focus has been STEM education, outreach and promotion.

She is a passionate supporter of promoting STEM knowledge and skills because knowledge, understanding and manipulation of these subjects and skills will empower the next generation of scientists and engineers to solve the big issues the world is currently facing.

You can follow Kerry on Linkedin @drkerrybaker