Do we give girls a real choice?

Talat Yaqoob is Director of Equate Scotland, the national expert on women in science, engineering, technology and the built environment. Equate Scotland’s team works with colleges, universities, employers, women and girls to increase the number of women studying and working in STEM.

As we approach National Women in Engineering Day 2016, Talat asks ‘do we give girls a real choice?’

For a number of years now, Scotland has prioritised increasing the number of women in science, engineering, technology and the built environment. This is for two reasons; firstly because we have a huge skills shortage in Scotland. By 2020 we need 140,000 more engineers, if we do not engage some of the 51% of the population who are women, that is a target we will never meet. Secondly, because it is the economically sensible thing to do. Scotland’s economy is growing but it is growing in the STEM industries the most, to capitalise on this, of course we will need more women. The Royal College of Edinburgh estimates that an equal number of women in the STEM industry is worth around £71 million to the Scottish economy.

So for all those reasons, our work is vital. But I often still get asked, if girls are not interested – why are you pushing them into STEM? Maybe they simply choose to do other subjects? The reality of course is a problem with the word “choice”.

From birth we stereotype children. Think of the aisles in a toy shop or children’s clothing shop – what do you notice? Rows dedicated to “boy things” and rows dedicated to “girl things”. The boys’ things will be blue, will involve physical activity and often some form of construction or cars. The girls’ things will be pink, will be about caring, cooking or appearance and will not be as intellectually stimulating. Is that real choice? If a girl sees a science kit she is interested in, but the packaging has a boy on it and phrases like “rocket making – the sky is the limit for boys” (that is real, by the way) would that girl look at it and purchase it despite its stereotyping? Or internalise it and think that the toy is not for her?

Later in life, as young women and men make subject choices these stereotypes remain as key influencers over them. Girls have grown up thinking science and maths are too tough for them, and boys have grown up thinking arts or home economics is not right for them. This thinking is of course wrong but, when those are the messages you have had from birth, it is a lot to expect a 15 year old young person to defy them. Last year, 76% of the students taking SCQF 6-7 in physics were boys, 82% of computing at the level were boys and 64% of pupils in product design were boys. At this point the “choice” has already been restricted for what girls can move into at college and university level. What we do see, however, is that for the small number of girls who take these subjects they outperform boys academically – busting the age old myth that science or maths is too tough for girls.

When making career “choices” women students, regardless of having excelled in the needed subjects, are still channelled into sciences which have a higher intake of women already; life science, biology, veterinary science and medicine. Engineering, chemistry, physic, computing and built environment are rarely promoted to them.

So back to the original question; maybe girls simply choose to do other subjects?

We can clearly see that they are making a decision from a restricted number of choices – can we truly call this choice at all? It is not a natural occurrence that only 24% of 16 year old girls take physics. If we were to remove institutionalised attitudes, this would be much closer to 50%. Our job is to re-think these attitudes and not push girls into STEM subjects, but rather give them a real and diverse choice in the first place, choices which include all options, whether childcare or chemistry.

We owe it to girls with an interest and ambition to pursue STEM and we owe it to the future of Scotland’s economy to give girls a real choice.

Thursday is National Women in Engineering Day and, whilst we celebrate the girls and women pursuing engineering, we need to highlight the hundreds more who could be pursuing it had we given them engineering as an option from the start.

Ayrshire College has taken the issue of Women in STEM seriously and I am very excited that Equate Scotland will be working closely with the college. The recent #ThisAyrshireGirlCan campaign has been a source of inspiration for many, and I know that it will have switched on a light for many girls who thought science and engineering wasn’t for them. Every time we switch on that light, we erase outdated stereotypes a little more and open up the world of STEM to the talents and creativity of women across Scotland.


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