I was walking in the park with my two daughters the other day. They were holding their Daddy’s hand in that lovely, unself-conscious way that kids do for only a few precious years. It was a beautiful spring day, daffodils just starting to push their heads up above the ground, clear blue sky and the air so clean and sharp that just breathing it made you feel rejuvenated. A great day to have one of those chats. So I asked my eight year old daughter what she would like to do when she grows up. Without hesitation she said to me, “I’d like to be an artist, a ballet dancer and a teacher”. And then she looked up and whatever she read in my face, she instantly said, “but of course Daddy, I’ll be a Maths and Science teacher”. I smiled. My ‘subtle’ but constant reminders about the importance of maths and science to her future had obviously sunk in. But she wiped my smile away with her next question: “Daddy, will I be able to learn all those subjects together in school”? Because frankly, she probably won’t be able to.
Education systems tend to be set up as a series of T-junctions and filters. Starting at an early age, the vast majority of students are asked to make decisions between subjects, such as science and art perhaps. These seem like little decisions at the time, but once a child chooses at a young age not to study a science subject or take maths at a higher level, then that decision can have life altering repercussions for higher education choices and therefore career options later in their life. All the indicators show that growth in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) related jobs will far outstrip the growth in traditional jobs over the next decade and that even today people with these qualifications are in short supply. So in general we need a larger supply of young men and women studying STEM subjects from a young age and for longer so that it can open up career opportunities for them while also solving the great societal challenges that face our world today.
And the problem is particularly stark for young girls. Influenced by traditional societal norms of what constitutes an acceptable career path for a young woman, girls participate in STEM related subjects at lower proportions. The situation deteriorates with each successive step with the numbers falling off a cliff when it comes to the proportion of women working in STEM careers in industry. In the UK, women make up 56% of the workforce but only 13% of the people working in STEM careers. In the US, the stats are a little better with women making up 58% of the workforce and 24% of the STEM related careers. Across Europe it is estimated that women make up just 30% of the STEM related careers. This is a problem both for those young girls who, through poor advice or societal pressure, cut themselves off from a vast array of the STEM-related careers of the future and it is also a problem for society in general. Better solutions are found by diverse teams with different backgrounds and perspectives. We just won’t find optimal creative solutions to the big societal challenges that face us all like climate change, smart sustainable cities, demographic change and renewable energy if we leave 50 per cent of the talent pool behind.
So we all have a role to play as parents, as employees and employers, and as citizens with an interest in improving our societies, to provide good academic and career advice, positive reinforcement, role models and mentorship to the young women in our countries to encourage them, through equal participation in STEM subjects and careers, to play an equal role in shaping our future societies. And maybe in about 20 years, some of them will be lucky enough to be taught Maths and Science by a confident young female Irish teacher who also loves art and ballet 😉
Find out more about Girls in ICT day (April 25) at Silicon Republic : http://www.siliconrepublic.com/events/event/3031-girls-in-ict-day/