Posted: 8 January, 2018

STEMming the Gender Gap

Blog, Senior School, Sixth Form, Suzie Longstaff

Blog by Suzie Longstaff, originally published in HuffPost UK

In 2017, illustrator Adam Hargreaves brought the Mr Men and Little Miss series bang up to date with the creation of Little Miss Inventor. Not a moment too soon. Adam brought his father’s books tearing into the 21st Century with a bold new character ready to challenge the gender stereotypes of the workplace, complete with pencils and a spanner in her hair.

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Little Miss Inventor makes a refreshing change from some of her less ambitious friends and has come at the perfect time to spark the imaginations of a whole new generation of girls. The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that there is a serious shortage of skilled female workers in industry, no doubt largely due to the low number of girls opting to study STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects at school, particularly at A Level and beyond, and yet these sectors are reportedly crying out for more applications from women.

The engineering sector is responsible for a quarter of the UK’s GDP and in order to remain competitive, it is forecast that we’ll need an estimated 1.28 million engineers in the next 10 years. So where are they to come from? Attracting young women into the industry should be the first place to start, and a top priority for us all. Astonishingly, with what is now the fourth industrial revolution already firmly underway, today only 8% of engineers are women, just a fraction higher than the 6% of a century ago.

Initiatives like the WISE campaign are already making a difference but there is no doubt that engineering has suffered from a bit of an image problem when it comes to attracting women. Going largely unnoticed, how often do we stop to think how engineering is all around us? It makes the world work and yet ironically stays very much under the radar until, heaven forbid, something actually goes wrong.

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A recent survey in the Independent newspaper revealed that women and girls are naturally better at collaborative problem-solving than their male peers. Well aware of this fact, at Putney High School GDST we are encouraging the many girls who study sciences to put their abilities to good use, looking at STEM careers with fresh eyes. Part of the task is reinforcing the message that these careers draw not only on skills from maths, science or engineering; their beauty lies equally in the way that they are reliant on innovation, entrepreneurship and creative thinking.

Today’s engineers are just as likely to be involved in sophisticated product design, making advances in robotic surgery, DNA analysis machines and agricultural modernisation, as they are in designing and building bridges. The applications are quite literally endless, and what more exciting challenge than to create and develop the products of the future? We owe it to girls to give them access to 3D printers and CAD in schools, but more than that, we must forge links with the industries that are looking so keenly to recruit. Let’s offer students the opportunity to see the application of science and engineering in some of the world’s most impressive settings. Visits to NASA, Imperial College and Williams F1 have been invaluable for the pupils at Putney High School who have been inspired to go further with their STEM studies, having had the chance to see engineering applied, in a real world setting.

As educators, we must do more to open not only eyes but also the doors to a whole realm of opportunity within these exciting fields. Together let’s make sure that Little Miss Inventor is just the tip of the iceberg and set in motion the radical redress of the gender balance that the world of innovation deserves.

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