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Not for people like me?

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UK employers report significant difficulty recruiting people with Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics (STEM) skills and the UK needs 36,000 more engineers per year than it produces.

1 December 2014

The usual response is that female are under-represented in STEM study and that, if only we can enthuse / inspire / encourage them to enter STEM fields, then the skills shortfall will disappear.

Unfortunately we have spent time, money and effort on this for 30 years and have made NO impact on the percentages of girls studying physics and engineering. My report, ‘Not for people like me‘, reviewed recent research in this area to find out what we’ve been doing wrong!

The Facts – it’s not what you’d think!

It is a myth that girls and women are not choosing STEM qualifications:

  • Girls outnumber boys in STEM qualification choices overall.
  • Girls outperform boys in STEM qualifications at all levels.
  • The fact is that girls are NOT choosing Physics post 16 and are losing or rejecting the opportunity to choose engineering post 18.
  • The UK has the lowest participation of women in the STEM workforce in Europe particularly in engineering and ICT, so it’s not that women just don’t want to work in STEM areas.

Why don’t girls study STEM?

The reasons why under-represented groups reject STEM have been well researched:

  • Careers from STEM are not popular aspirations for students age 10 – 14, nor for their parents.
  • Students from age 10 start to self-identify as ‘not STEM’ so start to plan not to study STEM post-16 very early.
  • Teachers often have lower (stereotypical) expectations of under-represented groups in STEM, reinforcing their non-STEM self-identity and pushing them to plan not to study STEM post-16.
  • One-off interventions in schools don’t work in changing students’ minds about studying STEM. Interventions have to be applied consistently throughout their school career but won’t work if teaching quality is poor.

How do students make their decisions?

Understanding decision making can help us engage better with these groups:

  • Parents’ influence has been under-estimated – they are the number one influence in career choices.
  • Enjoying a subject (or an activity) isn’t enough to persuade girls to study a subject.
  • Mothers are of considerable importance in shaping their daughters’ career plans.
  • Initiatives that seek to ‘encourage’ girls into STEM are misplaced. The evidence is that girls are making entirely logical careers choices based on the information available.
  • Girls, in addition to parental support, need to resolve the conflict between self-identity and their perception of the STEM-identity in order to see STEM as offering careers ‘for people like me’

What’s the self-identity : STEM-identity conflict?

Ask people to ‘tell me three things about yourself’ and people will either tend to provide statements using verbs (“I am a scientist, I run marathons, I enjoy cooking”) or using adjectives (“I am helpful, I am organised, I am friendly”). On average, males self-identify using verbs while females construct their self-identity using adjectives (though there’s a lot of overlap).

Careers in STEM focus on what the engineers and scientists “do”, rather than the types of people who choose these careers. The STEM professional, and therefore the perceived STEM-identity, is constructed using verbs. For those of us who self-identify using adjectives we rarely hear physicists and engineers described as “people like me”.

What can we do?

Girls need the message to be in the form they are seeking to hear:

  • We should describe the ‘person spec’ as well as the ‘job spec’ of the various careers in STEM.
  • We should emphasise the ‘types of people’ and their aptitudes (using adjectives) that are successful in the range of STEM careers, alongside what they ‘do’ (using verbs).
  • We should talk to mothers alongside their daughters to reassure them that STEM careers are for people like them.

The really novel element of this approach is working out how to enable girls to resolve the conflict between their self-identity and their perception of the STEM-identity that prevents girls choosing physics, and therefore engineering.

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