Rosemary Butler: The importance of women in 'STEM'

The National Assembly for Wales’s Presiding Officer, Rosemary Butler AM, has put the issue of barriers to women in public and professional life at the top of the political agenda in Wales as part of her #POWiPL “Women in Public Life”. She will give a keynote speech at the “Girls into STEM” conference on 27 February. Here Dame Rosemary explores the barriers that women face in STEM subjects.

 

If there are ten people in the room and you ask them who Albert Einstein is, or Isaac Newton, then a high percentage would be able to tell you that they are amongst the world’s most famous and greatest scientists.

This is of course conjecture on my part but a view I suspect would be borne out by research if it was undertaken.

But if we asked those same ten people who Marie Curie was, or whether they knew Barbara McClintock or Maria Myer, then I suspect the recognition factor would be far lower than the men.

They were all leaders in their respective scientific fields, and all won Nobel Prizes.

And when we look to scientific personalities on television, you may get people recognising Doctor Alice Roberts or Miranda Krestovnikoff, but they are the exception to the rule with many television science programmes being presented by male scientists, archaeologists or engineers.

I simply use the premise to highlight the wider point of how women are viewed from within, and outside, the scientific community, and how they face barriers to careers, and the top jobs in particular, in the Science, Technology Engineering and Maths (STEM) sectors.

The statistics paint a very bleak picture. Research by Women In Science Engineering & Technology (WISE) reveals that only 13 per cent of STEM jobs in the workforce are occupied by women.

The research also revealed that:

  • 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 16/17 and are losing or rejecting the opportunity to choose engineering post 18; and

  • The percentage of girls choosing physics hasn’t changed over 30 years, making up just 20% of those taking A-level and 21% of those taking degrees in physics.

It is clear that there are many women out there interested in STEM subjects, and presumably therefore interested in pursuing a career in their chosen field.

So how is it that women only make up 13 per cent of the workforce in the STEM sector?  When does science lose them, and what are the reasons for that drift?

These are the questions that the “Girls into STEM” conference will look at.

The evidence clearly points to female participation in STEM subjects dropping off  at the A’level stage, particularly in subjects such as Physics,  so that may be a good time to start.

Should role models be promoted as early on as primary school, or at key decision points such as Year 9 or Year 11 when young women make their GCSE and A’Level subject choices? If too few girls are considering STEM subjects as a real option for them, we will continue to have a skills shortage, and if we don’t have a diverse workforce in STEM then our competitive advantage is missing a huge boost.

These are issues and questions that I want to push to the top of the agenda and I would urge all sectors to take up the challenges, whether it is teachers or scientists working in non-education sectors to look at how they could get involved in providing mentoring for young women.