Whether it be vaccine research and development, the emergence of the metaverse or engineering the sustainable new cars and homes of the future, the STEM community has certainly risen to the challenge in recent years.
STEM – an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths – is an umbrella term for all subjects pertaining to those areas of the academic curriculum.
The subject group is frequently aligned with male achievement in education and is often cited as an area of female underrepresentation in the workforce. As of 2019, for instance, women made up just 24% of STEM employees in the UK.
In recent years, women have begun to readdress the balance with a 31% increase in entries from women and girls looking to complete STEM-related A-Levels, with the number of women working in engineering doubling during the past decade.
Clearly, the dial is shifting. We look at the possible historical reasons for this disparity and the women blazing a trail in their respective industries.
Jobs For the Boys?
Current statistics still fall short of the UK government’s goal of a critical mass of 30%. One reason for this is fewer girls than boys choose to study STEM-related subjects at University, so clearly, the reasoning is deeper lying.
There’s a common misconception at school that boys generally fare better in maths and science while girls tend to flourish more in humanities subjects. Ultimately, this is biologically disproven, with boys only attributed a minor advantage in spatial tasks. In fact, girls typically perform as well as boys in coursework tasks but do worse in tests. Perceived deficiencies may be a product of girls’ anxiety surrounding subjects more ‘suited’ to boys.
Another reason can be the perceived lack of female role models for young girls. With this in mind, we look at some of the biggest female players across the STEM fields.
Science has a longstanding history of successful women, from Marie Curie’s pioneering work across physics and chemistry to Rosalind Franklin’s contribution to the discovery of DNA structure.
Today, women continue to spearhead new developments in a time when scientific developments have perhaps never been more under the microscope (every pun intended). If you look at the UK’s vaccine response, Professor Sarah Gilbert, Kate Bingham, and Dr Jenny Harries have all played high-profile roles in the fight against Covid and are shining examples of the highly qualified roles available to young girls and women.
Women also have a strong presence in the UK tech sector. Cindy Rose OBE, for instance, is President of Microsoft’s Western European division with the guiding mission of empowering people and organisations to achieve more.
Carmina Lees is another prime example, Managing Director of financial services at the Fortune 500 company Accenture which specialises in global consulting and processing services.
Susanne Chishti, meanwhile, is one of the Fintech thought leaders globally and CEO of Fintech Circle – Europe’s first angel network focused on Fintech opportunities.
Statistically, the UK has the lowest percentage of female engineers in Europe at less than 10% despite boasting some of the best structural analysis software.
Some female business leaders, however, are still inspiring the next generation. Each year the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) honours the top 50 women and their achievements in the industry. Some notable winners in 2022 included Divya Bhanderi, Senior Engineer at Arup, Hannah Abend, Chief Operating Officer at Wood Thilsted and Natalie Kerres, Founder at Scaled.
The UK’s rich history of female mathematicians stretches all the way back to Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron and frequently cited as the world’s first computer programmer.
More recent examples include the precocious Maths prodigy Ruth Lawrence who, aged ten, became the youngest person to win a place at Oxford University. Since then, she has been a hugely influential researcher in knot theory and algebraic topology.
Clearly, the UK is still lagging in terms of industries related to the STEM curriculum. However, with these bright examples, more and more young women will be empowered in these traditionally male-dominated spheres.