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Time for equality in STEM is now

Thursday, 08 Mar 2018

Dr Neil Bentley, Chief Executive, WorldSkills UK

Today is a day for celebration. International Women’s Day marks the amazing contribution that women make to diverse societies throughout the world. This annual celebration has never been more relevant than it is today. The #MeToo movement of recent months has reminded us again of the discrimination that women face in their daily lives; and their power, character and determination to overcome and turn unjustifiable behaviour into a source of empowerment and strength. At WorldSkills UK, we particularly celebrate the role of young women across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in achieving their potential through skills. We are proud supporters of the UN’s HeForShe movement and are currently holding a national roadshow which has increasing young women’s participation in our skills competitions as a core aim.

So today is also a day to focus our minds on action. According to the National Audit Office, the participation rate of young women in STEM apprenticeships is 8%, despite the fact of women accounting for some 50% of the total number of apprenticeship starts. This is not where we want to be. After Brexit, we will only become the kind of high growth, high quality, internationally competitive economy the Prime Minister envisaged in her Mansion House speech last week if we use the talents of 50% of our population to optimal effect: this means encouraging far more young women to pursue STEM careers.

Achieving equality means starting in schools: it’s there where young people’s perceptions about the kind of careers they might want to pursue are formed. We have recently published research in partnership with The Careers & Enterprise Company that points to part of the reason that, in this National Apprenticeship Week, 92% of STEM apprentices are male: young women do not think STEM careers are ‘for them’. Our research – Closing the Gender Gap – shows how, with respect to STEM careers in areas like IT and engineering, young men are 18 percentage points more likely to say they would consider these careers – despite young women being equally as qualified. I believe that part of the reason behind this is the lack of available women role models in STEM: around 80% of such jobs in the economy today are jobs done by men. What we particularly need right now are more young women to be STEM role models. Young women like Betsy Crosbie.

Betsy was a member of Team UK who competed in the Abu Dhabi Skills Olympics last October. She took home a medallion of excellence in mechanical engineering and did not let the fact that she was one of only two women (out of 26 total competitors) get in her way. Betsy’s journey from college student to international medallist is an inspiration to other young women studying STEM in colleges not just in her native Scotland but across England, Wales and Northern Ireland too. It’s the kind of inspiration which needs to be heard. As Betsy has said: ‘When I was at school there was no one who came in to talk about skills. You need to give young people the information about the options. It was all focused on university; I went back to my old high school and told them about my journey – I think it gave people a feeling that you can do that too and end up competing in WorldSkills’.

We will have more young women like Betsy going into schools and telling their inspirational STEM stories as part our commitment with The Careers & Enterprise Company to strengthen careers advice. Already this programme has reached 4,500 young people in more than 115 schools and colleges in England over the year, with 73 per cent of those young people being inspired and motivated by meeting a skills champion.

Alongside views formed at school, the role of parents in helping to shape young people’s career choices should not be overlooked. As our research with the Careers & Enterprise Company shows: ‘young people feel that their mothers and fathers remain the biggest influences for life decisions across all ages’. Every year at The Skills Show, we welcome parents from across the country to open their eyes to the new possibilities available through technical skills. I have had countless conversations with parents who expressed surprise about the high-tech, high-end, male-and-female-friendly nature of STEM careers having engaged with engineering employers like BAE Systems and Dyson at the Show. Their perception of careers in gritty, male-dominated workshops was confounded by the cutting edge, technologically advanced, gender neutral reality of everyday life with our leading STEM employers. This is shown in our results: after attending The Skills Show, 60% of parents felt their own knowledge of technical careers had improved and two-thirds were more likely to encourage young women and men to consider apprenticeships. Winning the parental battle of hearts and minds, and demonstrating how STEM careers are open to all, is crucial on the road to gender equality.   

So as we celebrate International Women’s Day, let’s use it as a call to action.  At WorldSkills UK, we are committed to achieving 15% participation amongst young women in our STEM Skills competitions by 2022 – a doubling of the current total. This is an ambitious target which, alongside our work on role modelling in schools and featuring gender diverse careers at The Skills Show, demonstrates our readiness for positive change. The time for equality in STEM is now.

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