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Can Early Learning Bridge the STEM Gender Gap?

Christopher Cederskog

In 2015, 14.4 percent of the British STEM workforce were women. Think about that sentence. Across the entire spectrum of UK jobs in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, only 14.4 percent of positions were filled by women. And there’s very little reason to believe that that figure has increased overly much in the intervening three years. Don’t you think that’s shocking? Contributor Christopher Cederskog, Managing Director Europe –  Wonder Workshop, creator of award-winning Dash & Dot robots

There are various conceivable reasons for this, and any number of theories, dependent upon who you’re talking to. But of one thing I am absolutely certain: it has nothing to do with innate ability. If you look at the figures, in the early years of school, girls lead the way across the academic board, excelling in literacy and numeracy, with a 15.6 percent lead in achievement at the age of five. At age 11, this remains more or less the same.

But, when it comes to selecting GCSE subjects at age 14, the number of girls participating in STEM falls off a cliff. In 2011, 46 percent of schools in England sent no girls on to study A-level physics, and 14 times more boys studied engineering than girls. Despite the recent efforts, it’s not an improving picture. If you compare the GCSE entries of 2016 and 2017, 66,000 less girls sat STEM exams. So, the question everybody needs to be asking, is how we can use this early advantage to change the status quo, and benefit from the skills that women can bring to STEM.

For me, the obvious answer is to introduce these subjects early.

If you talk to school age children, a slightly depressing consensus emerges: STEM subjects are boy’s subjects. It’s an opinion held by both genders, and this is where the trouble lies. If a child does not see themselves as belonging in a certain group, they will not – usually – see it as holding potential for their future, so why put in the effort? If we can remove the gender bias and stereotyping associated with STEM, by making it an integral and engaging part of early education, the subjects will become ubiquitous, in the same way that literacy is now.

At Wonder Workshop, our aim has always been to educate through fun. Coding is our area of expertise, but the same premise can be carried across all areas of STEM. Our robots and programmes are gender-neutral, with the emphasis being on learning at each individual child’s pace, whether they’re male or female. If a child can become comfortable with a concept at an early age, and understand that a subject – be it English Language or Engineering – has as much relevance to them as to their peers, they are more likely to engage with it as they progress through their education.

Malvika Gupta, who took part in Shell’s Ideas360 innovation programme, explains the problem of STEM from the contemporary student’s viewpoint perfectly: “I think one of the biggest challenges that women face when studying STEM is the stereotype of people within the STEM field. So many women don’t even consider pursuing STEM because they feel that they don’t fit their mental idea of what a person in STEM looks like, acts like, or lives like. These stereotypes also discourage women from continuing in STEM.” While we can all say that the ideas of industry need to change, by the time most people reach employment, their ideas – either about their own place, or the places of others – are usually entrenched. The change in perceptions needs to begin at the early stages of education, and be reinforced throughout the school syllabus, so that early potential is able to grow.

Because the thing is, it’s not just those who may, theoretically, go on to work directly in STEM-related fields who are missing out. More than 50 percent of employers currently value the soft skills associated with STEM subjects – critical thinking, innovation, creativity, problem solving – and that’s only going to grow. 62 percent of employers across the board already highly prize programming skills. 71 percent problem solving. If female students fail to receive the STEM education of their male counterparts, they could later find themselves at a distinct disadvantage in the jobs market, whether their goal is medicine or humanities.

The UK Government has a goal of reaching “a critical mass of women working in the UK STEM workforce” of 30 percent. On paper, that figure doesn’t seem at all ambitious, but we’re not yet even half way there. If we’re really serious about reaching that target, and reaping the scientific – and fiscal (valued at a minimum £2bn) – benefits that target will bring, any time soon, change needs to happen. And it needs to happen rapidly.

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