Stop ‘Encouraging’ Girls. Start Encouraging Employers and Teachers.
Last Friday was International Women in Engineering Day again, and I return to a topic that I’ve written about previously – improving gender balance in Electronic Engineering.
Modern day Electronics is about using technology creatively to develop innovative products that improve people’s lives. Our engineers have never worn hardhats and they are in high demand – the appeal should be universal yet we have a woeful gender imbalance in the sector. So will Friday’s efforts to encourage girls work? I’m not so sure.
Despite the best of intentions, we know that high profile one-off events, slogans and carefully chosen rhetoric alone are insufficient. If this was what was needed to tackle the gender imbalance, we would have fixed it ages ago. Individuals, universities and organisations are genuine in their desire to make a difference; but they are deciding to know the solution before exploring the problem. For instance, Professor Uff’s 2016 review of the engineering profession points out: “[those who] engage with STEM promotion show a very positive response but there is no evidence that the same level of interest is maintained and translated into subject choices”. Earlier this year, echoing this, the University of Exeter reported there was “no evidence to suggest enrichment activities run to interest pupils in STEM results in significantly higher numbers studying these subjects at A-level”; this was a study based on data from 600,000 teenagers.
Am I alone stating this view? It doesn’t seem so: Dr Jess Wade recently argued that we need to re-think education policy: “it is not the girls that need fixing: they are NOT responsible for the skills gap”.
So what does need fixing?
- Mainstream Media: Too often they revert to lazy stereotypes when covering Engineering. This week’s BBC Look North evening news item (Wednesday 21st June) – “Why aren’t there more women in engineering?” showed old footage of rows of women filing down metal (from around the war days); then a modern factory with welding, sparks and flames flying, machinists grinding metal, people banging things, etc. with a voiceover proclaiming “we all know what doctors and scientists do, but not engineers”.
- Employers: TechWorks recently conducted a skills survey which included a question about gender diversity. Over a third of respondents skipped the question (which speaks volumes in itself) and from those who did answer it was evident that very few (less than 20%) were pro-actively engaged in tackling the imbalance. Enlightened, evidence-based approaches make companies stand out: the Women’s Tech Hub in Bristol is a brilliant example of how specific practical things can be taken to make positive changes to cultures within companies. Training providers like Skills 4 UK actively help companies implement gender diversity initiatives.
- Education: the number of girls taking Physics at A-Level has remained stubbornly low (≈ 20%) for more than 30 years. Countless schools have no subject specialists teaching Physics, and Brexit risks these numbers falling even more. Physics is a key enabling subject for those going on to study Electronics: it is easy to see why this has perpetuated the gender imbalance in our sector.
Recent research by the Institute of Physics found that the majority of schools do not encourage girls to develop a Physics “identity” – they may enjoy Physics at school and do well at it, but don’t self-identify with the subject and, as a result, they tend to opt for other subjects after the age of 16. The study noted that alongside improving teaching quality, the buy-in of senior leadership and other departments in achieving gender balance within the school can and does improve progression rates. Where lessons can be made relevant and linked to careers, all students can develop their own physics identity. Our Music Mixer project and the associated CPD course for A-Level Physics teachers, developed in collaboration with the University of Southampton, ticks every box: interdisciplinary and improves teacher confidence and knowledge. We need support to scale-up this project and work school-by-school, teacher-by-teacher and class-by-class. We will evaluate, adapt and re-run. This isn’t headline grabbing but is our evidence-driven, cost-effective, approach to making a difference.