Teachers and parents in the UK have a five-year window to grow girls’ interest in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) before it starts to wane, according to Microsoft research that sheds light on the reasons behind the STEM gender gap for the first time.
The study, which focuses on 1,000 women between the ages of 11 and 30, reveals why many girls decide against a career in one of these technical sectors and what can be done to address the issue.
Over the past decade, employment in the UK technology sector has grown 2.8 times faster than overall employment, according to a report by Tech City, which supports the digital economy. Cultivating girls’ initial interest in STEM and encouraging them to pursue careers in this field will not only create greater job security for the next generation; it can also boost the wider economy and ensure the UK remains at the forefront of the global cloud-enabled economy.
Microsoft’s research found that girls in the UK become interested in STEM subjects just before the age of 11 but this drops sharply when they turn 16. In addition, less than half (43%) of those surveyed said they would consider a career in STEM.
Twelve-year-old Paisley Edwards, from Croydon, was one of the girls surveyed. Said she benefited from her mum being a scientist at a pharmaceutical company.
“They say science is quite hard. But I say if you put your mind to it, it’s quite easy,” she said. “Sometimes when teachers explain [science] it’s not really fun, but my mum, because she knows a lot about it, she explains it more thoroughly and more interestingly. She influences me in the way I think about it, so it’s not really boring.”
Having a role model was one of the most effective ways to prevent girls falling out of love with STEM subjects, Microsoft’s research revealed. Others included parental and teacher support, practical experience and knowledge of STEM subjects’ application in the real world, and girls believing they will be treated as equally as men working in STEM.
In the UK, 44% of girls say that both parents talk to them about STEM, 53% believe there are encouraging role models out there, but 62% percent would like to see more encouragement coming from professional female coders, developers and lab scientists. Twenty-three percent feel STEM subjects are geared towards boys.
Davida Wilson, a 17-year-old from west London, said the importance of learning STEM subjects should not be underestimated. In Year 11 (ages 15 and 16), she and her classmates were encouraged to participate in science: “There was a lot of emphasis on female empowerment and women being able to do anything. We were always encouraged to do as much as we can to represent females in science.”
However, that changed by Year 13 (ages 17 and 18), when educators were focused primarily on teaching students what they needed to know to pass exams, Wilson said.
“In primary school there’s not much exposure to science, but at secondary school it’s something new, so the teacher has a lot of influence on whether you like it.”
To solve the issues raised by Wilson and many other girls her age requires action from governments, schools, companies and parents, as well as young women themselves.
Microsoft is playing its part by running female-focused events programs across the world aimed at increasing interest in STEM and building skills. These include DigiGirlz – which allows young women to get an inside look at what it’s like to work at Microsoft and learn digital skills through training and mentoring sessions – and Codess – which aims to inspire female coders and help them achieve their professional goals through networking events, mentoring and sharing advice and experiences.
In the UK alone, Microsoft has partnerships with Girlguiding and Modern Muse – a website that allows women in business to share their workplace experiences in the hope of inspiring youngsters. So far more than 70 “muses” – of all ages and stages of their careers, from a variety of social and educational backgrounds, who work across business and society – have signed up to Modern Muse website, which was officially launched at an event in Westminster on Wednesday.
“The research reveals that we can’t afford to wait until girls are thinking about university courses to foster their interest in STEM,” commented Cindy Rose, Chief Executive of Microsoft UK. “To stop the drop-off in interest in STEM at 16, we’re working with governments, teachers and non-profits to modernise the curriculum and provide better access to mentors. That’s why we recently announced a national skills programme to boost digital skills.
“We also want to show girls that technology can be a creative, fulfilling career, through programmes such as our DigiGirlz camps which aim to dispel stereotypes associated with the tech industry as well as our involvement in, www.modernmuse.org, which gives girls access to professional women from all industries, including our very own Microsoft muses.”
The UK survey formed part of wider Microsoft research that asked 11,500 women between the ages of 11 and 30 in 12 countries across Europe about their attitudes to STEM.