How Can We Inspire the Next Generation of Women Scientists and Engineers?

How Can We Inspire the Next Generation of Women Scientists and Engineers?

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Girls and women are systematically tracked away from science and math throughout their education, limiting their access, preparation and opportunities to go into these fields as adults

AAUW Research

The conventional idea of STEM careers being more male-oriented is something we know all too well. This idea unfortunately translates into society, where men vastly outnumber women in STEM during their university and college years, leading to an increasing gender gap in careers such as computer science and engineering. 

So why is there such a gap, and why has it been sustained for so long?

Is Maths Masculine?

Alongside the idea that STEM fields are masculine, the belief that men are generally better at maths is also prominent. This begins at an early stage, through primary teaching years. For example, in America, girls lose confidence in maths by the time they are 8 years old, whereas their male counterparts remain confident in their abilities. Therefore, it is not surprising that so few young women pursue a career in STEM when they believe their maths abilities are simply not cut out for it. 

However, this belief in a masculine innateness to mathematical ability is purely a myth, and ‘one of the most self-destructive ideas’ in education; numerous research has shown that there is no innate biological difference in the mathematical abilities between men and women.

Rather, the capabilities of girls are frequently undermined from a young age. Therefore, a culture of ‘maths anxiety’ is cultivated among young women, in a way that it is not in young men. And with the STEM field being so dominated by men, there is a workplace culture that may be intimidating to women. This presents another challenge for women to get involved, as their anxieties are only furthered.

How Do We Address This?

As we can see, early years education is a must in inspiring the next generation of women in STEM. We need to address the issue at its foundation, where young females are being put off of maths in their childhood, and that maths anxiety stays with them for the rest of their lives. 

As a female myself, who has gone into a career in social sciences rather than STEM, I can definitely trace back this maths anxiety in my own life. From the ages of 9-10 in primary school, I remember being acutely aware that my ability in maths was not as good as it was in other subjects, such as English, or even science. And I remember hating going to my maths classes, because it felt like everyone around me got it, but I just couldn’t! 

I did not think too much about it at that stage, but when I came around to doing my GCSEs, I saw myself struggling in the same way. I had to put in what felt like 10 times more effort to achieve an A grade in maths than I did in any of my other subjects. This led me to completely throw away any chance of studying a STEM-related subject as I moved on to my A-Levels, and then university. I truly believed that the maths in social sciences was the only maths I could get my head around. 

This shows the maths anxiety in action. Who knows, if I had been encouraged more in my primary school years, and given more opportunities to strengthen my maths abilities, maybe I would have pursued a career in STEM!

Therefore, educational awareness and opportunities for young females need to be stressed in order to inspire the next generation of females to pursue careers in STEM fields. For example, primary school teachers should receive extra training to address biases they may have about girls and their maths abilities, and the way STEM-related classes are taught could be adapted to provide a way to connect more girls with the subject, such as being more hands-on and active. Thus, when higher education and career opportunities come around, young females will be more readily available and want to put themselves up for it as there will be less anxiety around the subject at hand.

The Importance of Female Role Models

Female role models are especially important for attracting young females into STEM degrees and careers as they get older. Research shows a link between role models and increased passion for STEM subjects, as there is increased self-confidence. This stems from the idea that someone like them is doing it, so they can too. In other words, it increases the sense of belonging for females in STEM careers.

Role models can be inspirational and can reduce the self-stereotyping of stigmatized groups, and this may be the case for women in male-dominated STEM fields

Gonzalez-Perez et al, 2020

There have been numerous campaigns to address this, such as the platform, Speakezee working with the Institute of Physics and the Girls’ School Association. Within this, female graduate students who study a STEM field spoke to young girls to encourage them to pursue a STEM topic at A-Level. 

In addition, Shamira Sanghrajka created 1 million women in STEM (!MWIS), which aims to provide role models to women, targeting schools and universities in order to challenge the idea that roles in STEM are curated for boys. 

This is a significant step in the right direction to empower more young women to pursue careers in STEM, as it shows that the culture of men in certain jobs can be challenged, and women can be a part of it.

IEEE City Robotics Society’s Vice President, Bansari Sanghvi was proud to announce that the society had achieved a remarkable 40% female participation rate within the society. She explains how female role models have been central to this success; the society has been committed to the presence of female leaders within the committee, who have guided and put into place their vision of an inclusive culture within STEM-related fields, as well as increasing the representation of women among the society’s volunteers. Sanghvi states in our interview that, through this female representation:

We’re making a powerful statement: inclusivity isn’t merely a goal; it’s the cornerstone of our mission and the driving force behind everything we do

In Bansari’s own experience studying Computer Science at City, she recalls that there was a significant gender disparity in the lecture halls, with a higher ratio of male to female students. However, through her determination and passion for the subject, she immersed herself in the IEEE Robotics Society. Within this, as mentioned above, inclusivity was a key goal, and her work within the society to bring up female participation is a testament to this.

Inspiring the Next Generation

Despite numerous research and initiatives to increase female participation in such fields, there is still a long way to go to really achieve the empowerment we want for women in STEM. At City University of London, we feel very strongly about this. 

Sanghvi explains to us how the IEEE City Robotics Society is important in inspiring the next generation: ‘We extend invitations to everyone to join our workshops and engage in our competitions’. This means that even if you are not studying a STEM-related course, this society is still open to you! With multiple workshops throughout the term, and competitions to culminate all that has been learnt, it is an incredibly rewarding opportunity for all. Check out their website to learn more about what they do, “building a better tomorrow, one byte at a time!”.

To end my interview with Sanghvi, I asked her the question, “What more can universities do to inspire the next generation of females in STEM”?

Sanghvi answered:

“I believe that fostering unity among universities is crucial for cultivating a robust platform for women leaders in STEM. By organising networking opportunities and conferences featuring accomplished women in STEM fields, we can ignite inspiration and empower aspiring leaders. Furthermore, universities play a pivotal role in promoting extracurricular societies like the IEEE City Robotics Society. Integrating these initiatives into lecture programs encourages students to explore interests beyond their degree curriculum, fostering a more holistic educational experience. In the future, I aspire to champion these efforts and spearhead the creation of a supportive community where women in STEM can thrive. By leveraging the power of collaboration and advocacy, we can pave the way for a more inclusive and empowering landscape in STEM education and leadership.”

These steps will be crucial in engaging with the next generation of women scientists and engineers.