This article is part of our #BrightFutures series on helping build and understand the skills that the next generation will need for 2030.
You’re young, creative and love tinkering with stuff.
You’re probably happiest when you’re covered in glue and surrounded by the cardboard pieces you need to prototype your latest mad invention.
Everyone is amazed – and probably a bit jealous – at the passion you have for building, fixing and inventing – it’s boundless!
You’re 11 years old and the only barrier to success is your imagination.
You could become a scientist, engineer, designer, developer or anything you set your heart on, but there’s just one problem that sadly means you’re most likely, doomed to fail…
You’re a girl.
According to a report by Microsoft, girls become interested in STEM subjects around the age of 11 and then quickly lose interest at 15, following this only 16 percent of female students graduate in a related field.
Why does this happen?
Ingrained family stereotypes, reinforced by the media? The way science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) is taught in most secondary schools? Or perhaps it’s hundreds of years of male dominance in the sciences?
I think you can use any of these starting points to begin painting a pretty good picture, but, whatever the cause, one thing is certain, we need to collectively break free of this cycle, and we need to do it fast.
This isn’t just a case of gender equality. It’s also the millions of potentially world-changing scientists, inventors and developers that we’re losing to poor engagement strategies, especially at a time when tech companies are falling over each other for staff!
We need to wake up.
So, what to do about it? There are lots of amazing people working on this, but here are five short-term fixes we think could help get us back on track:
1. Starting Early
11 to 15 is a tiny window to make sure girls are inspired and encouraged enough to breakthrough into a STEM-related industry. We need to start earlier. Let’s ingrain, design, creativity, engineering and science in young minds through innovative programmes that happen at school AND at home.
Longitudinal research studies confirm that parental involvement in learning activities in the home is strongly associated with children’s better cognitive achievement – lead by example!
- Enrol your girls into a MakerClub session straight away (goes without saying) – they will adore it!
- If there’s no MakerClub, have them joing a local CodeClub or even start one yourself (It’s actually easier than you think!)
- Get them using something like DIY.org to do free online challenges in tech, animation or pretty much anything on there (this is brilliant Summer holiday fodder, btw)!
- Buy them a Microbit invention kit and learn WITH THEM!
2. Peer Groups are Important
Imagine desperately wanting to learn to code and excitedly heading over to your first lesson. You’re a guy, you walk in the door and BOOM! You’re faced with a room full of dozens of women, with not a single hint of male companionship in sight.
You’d find it intimidating and super stressful.
This is something that happens every day for women, especially in technology or engineering companies.
Because there are so few women that complete a STEM degree, it’s a pretty small talent pool, so it’s probably understandable that a company may only have one or two women in a technology role (even that’s good at the moment!), but it doesn’t make it any easier for those female staff who are trying to make a mark in the industry without an adequate peer group to keep them happy and motivated at work.
- If you’re a woman facing this problem, perhaps join a ‘women in tech’ group outside of work. You can find these on Meetup or inspiring events like 300 seconds. You are definitely not alone!
- If your male and you work in a company where this is the case, be aware of it. Don’t treat women like outsiders.
- Also, remember that research shows that women work better in teams than men – bring female work colleagues into the fold, or ensure they are regularly a team leader – it makes for better business!
3. More Female Role Models
If you are a successful female entrepreneur, coder, designer or inventor, go and inspire other girls to do the same thing.
Did you know, it only takes 4 times for a young person to interact with an employer to make a lasting positive change? You can make a big difference to young women’s lives, simply by getting out there and telling them your story.
- Check out and get friendly with the Stemettes, who regularly run ‘hack days’ for ages 8 to 18 with inspiring female role models taking centre stage.
- Become a mentor for Young Enterprise, where you will work with a group of teenage students at a local school and help them set up their own business.
- Join The Girls Network and empower girls from the least advantaged communities.
- As a bonus, there are loads of great work being done by large corporates, check out the Fast Forward campaign from EY. Their research suggests that gender parity in the workplace could take another 170+ years – better get on and do something about it!
4. Foster an Inclusive Environment for Women at Work
As the Uber debacle has shown, things are far from fine for women in the workplace. Especially in the tech sector, which has long fostered a male led environment of awkward coders with questionable social and business practice.
This is changing, as companies understand the importance of inclusive cultures and the huge benefits they can reap, but there’s still lots of work to do.
Not only is this kind of sexism morally reprehensible, it’s also bad business. Studies show that companies with different points of view, market insights and approaches to problem-solving have higher sales, more customers and larger market share than their less-diverse rivals.
- If you’re at work and you see a female colleague (or anyone for that matter) being shunted to the side in meetings or not taken seriously, call it out – here’s a guide to make it easier! See it for what it is, discrimination, then candidly talk to your affected co-worker about it, they need to know they are not alone.
- If you’re the boss (and a man OR woman), have a long think about what kind of company you’d like to run. Here’s a great list of company culture decks that might help you address the balance, but remember, you have to live the culture, not just write a cool deck and forget about it!
5. Lifelong Learning
While coding is certainly not for everyone (no matter what the latest trendy campaign might tell you), you should at least give it a try and see if you like it. The industry desperately needs more developers and recent research says that women might be slightly better at it that men!
It’s never too late to brush up your skills or discover a new passion – it’s also fine to not like coding, there’s a whole world of STEM jobs that have nothing to do with computer programming out there too.
Also, it’s not just about work. Millions of people love simply tinkering and making cool stuff at home – the garden shed is no longer just for men, go and build something fun.
- In the UK, we’ve got SheCodes, CodeFirstGirls and Codebar.io, all who provide free starter sessions, usually with pizza and some booze thrown in, which is always welcome – go to a session with an open mind and just have a go.
- If you like it, you can head over the Codecademy for free online sessions.
- If you love all of that, maybe its time to get serious and grab a General Assembly course, or maybe even a full-blown degree!
- Or, if you just fancy having a tinker, why not buy a Raspberry Pi PiTop or a Kano (not just for kids!) and start having a play around, there are loads of how-to guides to get going, it could be your new favourite new hobby
This is a big and complicated topic that lots of people can get quite angry about, if you’ve read anything you don’t agree with, or you can think of a bunch of extra ways to make a change, comment below…
There are also loads of people at the forefront of this, so if you’re interested, go check out someone like Joelle Emerson, or Alicia Robb for a more in-depth and frankly, educated look at diversity in the tech sector and beyond.