Women and science – ‘has potential but could do better’

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The STEM sector offers many wonderful career opportunities to young people, and is a sector in which skills are in short supply. Girls in particular are underrepresented in STEM, even though they outperform boys in STEM subjects at GCSE level. They are also much less likely to choose STEM subjects for higher education, and even less likely as a career. The Women’s Business Council recommended that one way in which this could be addressed would be to create effective partnerships between business and schools, to give girls a direct insight into the opportunities available to them. I am delighted that the Government Equalities Office has worked with the British Chambers of Commerce to explore approaches to setting up local partnerships. President of the British Chambers of Commerce, Nora Senior, explains why these partnerships are so necessary, and how they have been able to facilitate schools and business to work together in partnerships that are mutually beneficial and successful. GEO and the Women’s Business Council are proud to showcase this work as an example of achieving growth by working in partnership.


Nora Senior

Nora Senior, President of the British Chambers of Commerce

Undoubtedly, the twentieth century is one of the most remarkable in human history for its previously unparalleled rate of technological advances and scientific discoveries – from airplanes to automobiles, nuclear energy to the Internet and penicillin. Indeed, there have been more inventions and innovations introduced in the past 25 years than in every previous century.

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That rate of invention continues to this day. But in recent years, we have seen a shift: the biggest technological advances are being developed not in Britain but elsewhere.

In part this is because many UK companies operating in the science and technology related sectors say they are struggling to find enough talent to meet demand. In fact, the UK engineering and construction sector expects to see a shortfall of more than 100,000 workers by 2050.

Despite having all the tools to be a global innovator, we have failed to dedicate enough attention to nurturing the talent and skills we need to drive innovation – both at school, at further and higher education level and in the workplace. And this is particularly the case in relation to women and science/technology related skills.

Stem Photo 8Women make up 47% of the UK’s workforce, but are significantly under-represented in the science related sector, representing just 13% of that workforce. It is a bit of a conundrum. Although there are actually more young men than women in the UK, in 2013, there were more female (55%) than male fulltime undergraduates (45%) enrolled at university – a trend which shows no sign of shrinking.

Last year, there appeared to be a drop of over 20,000 in the number of male students enrolling at university; in theory that means women were a third more likely to start a degree than their male counterparts.

Nonetheless, there are still far fewer women than men studying degrees in science and technology. This is a great pity, as women are missing out on what can be highly rewarding careers, and companies are missing out on a huge pool of talent.

So how can we attract more young girls and women into science and technology related careers? We need to have access to all of the country’s talent, not just half of it, if we are to rise to the challenge of restoring our place at the forefront of innovation.

The British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) and the Government Equalities Office came together in May 2014, to pilot the School Business Partnerships programme with the aim of tackling this very problem. Through the pilot, we sought to better understand how partnerships between business and education can be made to work practically over the long-term, but more importantly to understand how this type of engagement can have a positive influence and broaden the career aspirations of girls.

Stem Photo 4.Five local Chambers of Commerce participated in the pilot – Plymouth, Staffordshire, Hertfordshire, St Helens and North East. The aim was to look at ways to encourage girls to enter into science related courses/training/jobs, by introducing them, through interaction with business, to the exciting variety of careers on offer and the routes into them. Chambers delivered a wide range of initiatives which included ‘educating’ careers advisors from the local council to ensure they had the most up to date intelligence on the variety of ‘new’ and existing jobs in the industry (and such is the speed of technological advancement that jobs exist now which were not even thought of five years ago – again a trend set to continue), as well as careers fairs, talks in local schools and open days at businesses. In Plymouth, for example, a group of pupils visited a local engineering company, MGB Engineering Ltd, a specialist supplier of railway signalling equipment. Over three separate visits students planned and wired their very own signal box. They were then asked to give a presentation on what they had learned, at a celebratory event.

The initiative reached more than 1,650 pupils and we are now in the process of measuring the outcome of all that activity. There have been many benefits for both sides. For businesses it provided a connection to potential future employees, raised awareness of their industry needs and supported existing staff professional development, to name a few. For schools it aided classroom learning about careers and gave careers advisors first-hand insight into the opportunities available in a range of businesses, which they can pass onto young people. And most importantly the partnerships helped to increase pupil motivation and interest in science related careers!

Stem Photo 5.It may seem like a simple equation to roll out such partnership initiatives nationally – but for many schools and businesses it’s unfamiliar territory.

Our project demonstrated that businesses and educators can work together in a way that is constructive and easily achievable for both sides. Given the differences between schools and businesses and the ways in which they function, facilitation is crucial to make it work. Intermediaries like the BCC help to ensure that the expectations of both parties are met, and help to ease administrative burdens.

This type of partnership between business and education needs to be embedded in both psyches. The doors between schools and businesses need to be wedged open to allow closer links to be formed. It is the only way that we will maximise the UK’s economic potential and competitiveness in a global market in the future.

As my old report card said: ‘Has potential but could do better..’