Let’s start with this sobering thought. Only 6% of engineers in the UK are women. Given that the population is roughly split 50:50, this number is worryingly low for those of us working in the STEM (science, tech, engineering, maths) sector. For a number of years now, there has been a recognised skills shortage across STEM subjects. Put simply, too few students are choosing STEM-related degrees or vocational courses, and many of those who do go on to graduate leave the sector to move into other industries. So we have a problem. We need more engineers and scientists, and right now, we’re not managing to reach all of those with the potential to close the gap. But, as many of us have been saying for (literally) years, that’s because we’re starting in the wrong place.
In the UK, children make influential decisions on their school subjects at an incredibly early age (much earlier than in Ireland etc). So my thought has always been that if we want to inspire children, it needs to be as early as possible, ideally before they even reach double-digits! So, you can imagine how interested I was to see the IET‘s new campaign (launched 30th Mar), called Engineer a Better Future, targeted specifically at parents and young children (aged 9-12, especially girls). It aims to “…encourage them to think about engineering as an exciting and relevant career choice.” It also includes a rather lovely video – please watch it, it made me smile 🙂
To coincide with the launch, the IET also published the results of research they’d carried out with CHILDWISE – they wanted to investigate the parental perceptions of engineering (and of their children’s interests and abilities), and the outcomes were…. staggering, if not entirely surprising. A summary report and the very comprehensive research report are both available on the ‘research’ tab of the site – they are definitely worth reading if you have any interest in STEM education! The research included (1) an online survey for parents and children (with 1007 participants) and (2) in-depth interviews with 18 parents and 32 children. The methodology is fully laid out in the report, but for me, some headlines include:
- Both parents and children have a limited view of what engineering is – e.g.1, Girls are twice more likely than boys to feel that engineering is simply about cars. e.g.2, Quote from a boy aged 11-12: “ICT… I’m awesome at that! But that’s computers and technology, that’s not engineering.”
- The majority of children say that they don’t know anything about careers in Engineering
- The gender of the parent also plays a part in the perception of engineering – mums were generally less likely to say their child (girl or boy) would be interested in it. When talking about possible careers: Mums are more likely to mention the Arts, Public Services, Education and Childcare, and Hair and Beauty. Dads mention Information Technology, Engineering, Finance and Legal, Management and Admin, and the Environment more than mums do.
- Among those interviewed, maths tended to be the weakest link among STEM subjects – for boys and girls.
It is not really a surprise to hear that parents have a huge role to play in shaping a child’s perceptions. But according to Childwise, by the age of seven, children “….are becoming more concrete thinkers. They are beginning to form an identity away from their family unit and are more impressionable as a result.” So, what they learn before that age is central to helping them develop that independence of thought. Those of you who follow me on Twitter will know that I get a bit ranty about pink and blue toys. By declaring a space shuttle as a boy’s toy or a doll’s house as a girl’s toy, we limit our children’s choices – we (or at least toy marketeers) are effectively telling them what is appropriate for them to play with. Why shouldn’t we want our sons to play with dolls? In case they turn out to become a father some day?! And do we want our daughters’ toys to focus entirely on the domestic? I mean, it is a RIDICULOUS state of affairs. We seek equality as adults – shouldn’t we do the same for our kids? For me, the toys we buy our children has a huge role in shaping their views on the world, and we should be mindful of that when choosing them. [I’m not the only one either – follow @LetToysBeToys on Twitter!]
I was lucky. I was never made to feel weird about the things I enjoyed to do as a child. I loved toy cars, taking stuff apart and figuring out how everything worked. I also liked skipping and playing with tea sets. None of those things made my parents bat an eyelid (or if they did, they never let me see it). My questions were always encouraged and if my parents / siblings didn’t know the answer, we tried to find it together. I am under no illusions of how annoying I was as a child – frankly, I was a pain in the ass – but still, my love of knowledge and experimentation was never discouraged. And as I result, I never felt that science or engineering weren’t appropriate interests to have! But, this is not true for everyone, as this research shows.
ALL IS NOT LOST though. There is lots that we can do to update people’s perception of engineering. Firstly, we need to tell them what it actually is. Engineering careers can include everything from hard-hats and textiles to computers and ecology, and everything in between. But given that there is no such subject as “engineering” in most school curricula, we can’t expect people to just know that – we need to build awareness of the diversity of engineering careers. And even a small amount of information makes a huge difference. The IET’s research showed that after seeing some information on engineering, both parents and children are much more likely to be interested in an engineering career. The biggest change in opinion was amongst girls themselves, with almost twice as many girls saying they would now consider an engineering career. And for the parents, information leads to a big change in opinion too – Before being more informed, fewer than half (45%) of parents of girls would encourage their daughter into engineering. This rose to two thirds (67%) after seeing more information.
Both parents and children said that they would love to have visits to school from engineers, along with more practical activities in schools. So if you are an engineer or a scientist, please find the time to visit your local school – the easiest way to get involved is to become a STEMNet Ambassador – they offer very helpful training, constant support and will organise the DBS / CRB check most schools will expect you to have. Meeting you will demonstrate better than anything, what an engineer is / does. You’ll be helping to open children’s minds to jobs that they might never have heard of…. and I guarantee you’ll have fun in the process!
Of course I’m not suggesting that we should force-feed our daughters, sisters and nieces with science and engineering. But, we must not allow any weird prejudices that we may have to shape her options. So I beg you, parents, even if you’re not interested in engineering, please don’t tell your inquisitive daughter that its “more for boys”. Don’t tell her that she shouldn’t be interested in building or designing stuff. Encourage it. Don’t just buy her ‘girly’ toys or ridiculous genderised lego. Encourage her to read and explore science-y ideas, allow her to ask questions and encourage an open mind (even if yours has closed a teeny bit). If you do, she will thank you. Because she’ll feel supported, no matter what subjects she decides to go on to study. All of this is true for boys too, of course! But the numbers suggest that there are fewer boundaries (cultural and imagined) facing boys than girls, and this is something we need to address. For both genders, we need to help children to see that science and engineering have a huge role to play in everything around us – if they are interested in computing and gadgets, try to find information on what computer engineers do. And if you know any scientists or engineers, why not give them a call and ask them to do a workshop in your child’s school?
These results, like many before them, highlight the importance of role models in a child’s life. But (and I stress this), this is not solely the responsibility of their teachers. Even the most inspiring teacher can’t help a child to fly if, when that child goes home, they hear that certain subjects aren’t for them. We all have the responsibility to inspire and guide future generations, so what are you going to do about it?