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"Why?" and "How?", not "What?" and "Wow!" are the keys to closing the gender gap in STEM.
Over the past four months we have become increasingly immersed in the mission to address the gender gap in STEM roles and the fact that girls are dropping out of science and IT based subjects at school, particularly after GCSE. This is not a new phenomenon, it has been an issue for decades and various organisations have been trying to fix it for years. The question of "why" these have failed was recently asked at a BBC Women's Hour event we attended - and there was no clear answer from the panel. We have often found ourselves asking the same question as all the statistics show that the gender gap in the UK (particularly in tech and IT) is actually getting worse - less than 1 in 5 tech roles are held by women.
We jumped at the chance recently to run some workshops at a schools outreach day, part of the Malvern Festival of Innovation. The day was advertised as "Showcasing creative science, technology, and entrepreneurship for middle and senior school students (Years 7 to 9)" and the website encouraged exhibitors to "enthuse our region's students about science, technology, business and innovation". I firmly believe that the intention behind the day is to do exactly as the adverts say. I don't know quite what I was expecting to see on the day, but what I saw in the few minutes I managed to escape from our stand was not that inspiring. I think what I saw was actually the answer to the question we had been asking ourselves recently. I saw the reason why girls are not being attracted to science and technology subjects.
I did a quick circuit before the doors were opened to the public. The exhibition hall was full of stands with plenty of freebies on offer for the hordes of children due to attend. First impressions when I walked around the room were good - there was some pretty exciting looking kit on display – robots, microscopes, 3D printers and even a planetarium! Second impressions, however, were not so good. I saw too many old men; too many white coats and too many stands where webpages had been printed on poor quality paper and stuck to tablecloths and noticeboards (yes, University of Gloucestershire, I am naming and shaming you!).
Later on I grabbed a five minute break from our stand where we had been running workshops all day and wandered around again. Obviously, the freebies attracted the children to a lot of the stands, but some stands had no students anywhere near them. The shocking thing for me was that those stands always had a couple of people sat behind the table chatting to each other. I so wanted to shout: "Come on people, we are not here to sit talking to a colleague all day! Get out there, talk, listen, ask questions, tell jokes, anything, just talk to these children who have, maybe, never been to anything like this before!" I appreciate that sometimes organisations cannot afford pretty banners and literature to entice attendees over. I also know that not everybody has a cool prop to rely on to grab people’s attention - we were on a shoestring budget as a startup, relying on cushions and blankets from The Range and cheap sweets for our goodies. But freebies and printed material are so far from the point of the day. It should have been all about conversations, encouraging children to see things from a different perspective for just a couple of hours, to open their eyes not just to how "cool" science and technology is, but to discuss with them how it can and will impact their future. Every child that walked past those people sat chatting was a wasted opportunity and a huge failure on the part of the exhibitor.
Having said that, I also saw some bad conversations going on. For example an older chap in a suit trying to keep two young men entertained with stories of measuring angles. The boys stayed, clearly out of politeness – good on them - but it was very clear from the look on their faces that they were just not interested. If you are going to exhibit at an event aimed at 12-14 year olds don’t use the same pitch you use for peers or potential customers – other older men, probably.
We spoke to about 100 girls at the event, we asked them what they had found interesting – they all had answers to that question (I imagine they knew they would be asked that question on returning to school). But, every girl we tried to involve in a deeper discussion about what had interested them with questions like ‘why?’ or ‘how?’ could not answer us. Even what had looked like the inspiring exhibits had left a big gap. Those girls had walked away with a cursory "cool", and then gave whatever they had just been looking at or heard no more thought.
Our mission when we were there was to learn about these girls. What makes them tick, what their frustrations, hopes, dreams and challenges are. To see them as individuals who - regardless of whether they study ballet or teaching or coding - will have a future that is entirely intertwined with technology, and help them understand what this means. We had some brilliant debates and discussions that inspired us and we learnt so much. We talked a bit and listened and engaged a lot - our approach was more about asking why than telling what. Highlights of the day ranged from a group of girls designing a IOT/AR wardrobe and mirror, including planning how they'd structure the pricing (modular, obviously) and who their target market was; a chat with an aspiring ballerina about how wearables will help dancers achieve peak fitness; to a discussion about how we can keep plants alive with a connected product - and which international markets we might be able to sell it to!
We absolutely weren't perfect, and we will do much better next time (we seriously learnt loads), but we do know that by taking the time to get to know the girls as people rather than wowing them with "whizzy" but ultimately meaningless things, we will have made an impact. Listening, engaging, knowing your stuff, asking (and answering) questions and encouraging debate are so important if we want to make a real difference to that number.
Afterthought: I was in two minds as to whether to publish this blog. It seems to come down hard on the ‘older men’ at these events. We met some amazing men representing various organisations at the festival. It was clear that they feel passionately about encouraging girls and women into the STEM areas when we spoke to them. I think they just need to work on their approach, and I think we could help there.
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