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Women and STEM

I recently wrote about girls and STEM at school, and this article on the same theme caught my attention. It features a letter written by a male engineering student to the women students studying with him. He very neatly twists a common idea around in this short, but powerful article. Let me know what you think… 


Branching out into STEM

I have read a lot about the low numbers of women studying STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects. After having a quick think about my own class (in an all girls school), I realised what all the fuss was about. Medicine is a popular future career at the moment; cardiology, physiotherapy, pharmaceuticals, paediatrics, and being a GP have all been discussed. Teaching, law and sporting careers are popular choices. We have an aspiring architect and politician in our midst, and an archaeologist. Many people haven’t made up their minds yet, but I can only think of one girl who has expressed a serious interest in the STEM subjects, specifically engineering. App design has been mentioned occasionally, but not with any serious intent.

As for the STEM subjects in school, science is popular, but there is the option to drop it during the senior cycle. For those who don’t drop it in favour of accounting, business or economics, biology is the most popular choice. Class sizes for chemistry and physics are small, despite government initiatives to alter this trend. Physics and chemistry are widely seen as being difficult, and because of the Irish obsession with points, these subjects tend to be shunned. Furthermore, despite a recent upgrade to the computer room, IT classes are non-existent for students in the junior cycle.

So, getting girls into STEM isn’t going to be easy. Leaving aside some girls’ reservations about studying what are perceived to be boys’ subjects, there is the issue of information. Many girls are unaware of the wide variety of professions that becomes available after studying a STEM subject. The school’s attempt to inform students in this area has amounted to a few posters in the labs, which are too high up to be read properly. Furthermore, we aren’t allowed into the labs except during classes so there is no opportunity to examine them properly.

This year, there have been many events to give girls information about STEM careers, such as Inspire2015, I Wish and Girls Hack Ireland. Looking further afield, Coderdojo and Girls Who Code have both proved popular. Girls Who Code provided a seven-week long Summer Immersion Programme this year at Georgetown University. The participants aimed to find a solution to an everyday problem using coding.

I think it is these kind of initiatives that will succeed where other methods have failed. By giving girls a start in subjects such as IT, and by showing them the wide range of career choices on offer from STEM subjects, the tide may finally turn and more girls will choose to study STEM subjects at university level.




Girls in STEM careers

There is an ongoing debate about the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) and how to get more girls interested in them. Many campaigns and programmes encourage girls to study STEM subjects in school and consider them as careers. However, despite all this effort, in Europe less than 7% of all tech positions are filled by women. Ten years ago 47% of entrants into maths, science and computing university courses were women. In 2013, that number had fallen to 40%. Clearly something is being done wrong.

I see a problem with some of these campaigns that would certainly deter me (and as a teenage girl I am in the target audience). However, I can’t see it not having an influence on boys as well. When small children are asked what they want to be, ‘a scientist’ is an ambitious but vague answer. If one studies Science in school, but it is not applied to the everyday world, it is difficult to envisage a career in it. There is no such thing as ‘a scientist’. There are chemists, ecologists, forensic scientists, geologists, physicists, astronomers and more. I think that if Science teachers taught their students where and how theories and formulas fitted into everyday life, science would become clearer for many students. Perhaps if science was broken down into careers and students knew what each one might involve, studying science at third level would become more appealing. Although this problem cannot only apply to girls, perhaps teachers and parents of boys take the time to inform them about the options that STEM offers, but do not think it relevant to girls.

‘I Wish’ is a Cork initiative that aims to provide girls with more information about careers that are possible after studying STEM subjects. According to Gillian Keating, President of the Cork Chamber of Commerce, ‘We have to show them what being an engineer, for example, means. I think the key problem is that girls simply do not know what the job options are’. If this is so, then campaigns must focus on making the range and variety of careers obvious to girls, particularly if their parents are also not informed about them.

On the other hand, while girls are being encouraged into STEM subjects, should not boys be educated about traditionally ‘female’ subjects like Art and Home Economics? I compared two secondary schools, one for girls and one for boys to see what subjects were available. The curricula are the same except for the following differences. In the boys’ school Applied Maths, German, Design and Communications Graphics, Materials Technology, Construction Studies, Computer Studies and Classical Studies were offered. In the girls’ schools Japanese and Home Economics were offered. The boys’ school places a greater emphasis on subjects involving construction that could possibly lead onto a career in engineering.

So, I think it is equally important that boys take up careers traditionally seen as being for girls as that girls do the opposite. This equality lark works both ways and it is very easy to forget that. This is a very complicated debate and no one seems to know all the different solutions to the problem.

What are your views? Do you think that STEM initiatives are targeting girls in the right way at the moment? Do you think it is just as important for boys to be encouraged to seek different career options? Please let me know what you think.

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