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Inspiration is key for Europe's girls

Girls in STEM: the importance of role models

Research from Microsoft has revealed that the number of girls interested in STEM across Europe, on average, almost doubles when they have a role model to inspire them.

The new findings from a Europe-wide study of girls and young women shows that in general, there is a clear link between role models and an increased passion for science, technology, engineering and maths subjects, with more interest in careers in these fields, and greater self-confidence.

The results – which are mirrored by Microsoft US research which also shows the importance of role models in inspiring girls to pursue STEM fields – also highlight a concerning gap between the number of girls interested in STEM subjects and the number of young women with actual STEM careers.

Given that Microsoft’s research last year showed that the average European girl loses interest in STEM by the age of 15, the results provide an opportunity to leverage role models and increase their exposure, to ensure that classroom passion blossoms into careers.

While there is no one single silver bullet solution to motivate more girls and young women to pursue a path in STEM, we must all explore as many avenues as possible and work together to develop solutions. Initiatives such as DigiGirlz, CoderDojo and Czechitas, which run workshops to encourage children to pursue STEM interests, are but one piece of the puzzle.

Microsoft’s research stands alongside organisations such as UNESCO and Accenture in providing data and insights around the importance of role models in STEM, with the hope that educators, policy makers, NGOs and the private sector can all work together and invest towards bridging the digital skills gap of the future.

With women only making up 30 percent of Europe’s ICT workforce and an expected shortage of up to 500,000 ICT workers by 2020, this is an issue we must all address today – and role models could help.

The research
Microsoft’s research saw 11,570 respondents (aged 11 – 30) surveyed across 12 European countries: Belgium, the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Slovakia and the UK.

Teachers and parents were excluded from the definition of ‘role models’ to ensure that the impact of other types of role models aren’t underestimated. Role models for the purpose of the study, include fictional (film and literature), real people, and women working in STEM, such as researchers, developers or inventors.

Looking at the results, celebrities are considered to be the least influential role models for driving girls’ interest in STEM, while women working in STEM fields are the top drivers, with the most impact.

Greater interest, increased passion
Overall, the research shows that role models clearly have a positive impact on girls’ perception of STEM subjects. On average, across Europe, 41 percent of girls with role models report an interest in STEM subjects, compared to 26 percent of girls without a role model.

Interestingly, this increased interest in STEM isn’t limited to a single subject. On average, across maths, physics, biology, chemistry and computer science, having a STEM role model results in a 12 percent increase in interest. Girls with role models are also shown to have more belief in themselves, evaluating themselves as higher performers across STEM subjects.

Equally as important, is the fact that the results show that if a girl has a role model for a particular subject area, such as maths, a corresponding positive effect is still seen across all other STEM fields.

Imagining a STEM future
The results of the survey also show that over half (51 percent) or girls with role models can imagine a future career in STEM. Despite this however, only 38 percent of young women with STEM role models actually work in STEM fields, highlighting an opportunity to convert young girls’ passion into further STEM education and, ultimately, careers.

Despite the clear importance of role models, it’s worth noting that having a STEM role model alone is not completely enough. Almost half (49 percent) of girls with role models still don’t see themselves working in a STEM field.

Microsoft’s research has also shown that another vital factor for engaging girls with STEM is the use of real-world examples to spark a passion and interest – an important responsibility for teachers and educators to take into consideration. Microsoft’s Hacking STEM resources are an example of lesson plans that can be used to help children relate STEM theory to exciting, real-world applications.

Girls that do have STEM role models also appear to want more encouragement from their families, and are also more aware of male gender stereotyping in STEM, by society. Individuals with role models also give more weight to peer group approval overall, but are less concerned about being compared to their male STEM peers- highlighting the increased confidence across all subjects that role models can provide.

Country-specific findings
The overall European research findings are available to download below.

Looking at certain countries, it’s clear that the impact of role models can vary. The Czech Republic, for example, goes against the overall European trend – Czech girls are only two percent more interested in STEM subjects when they have a role model. In addition, certain subjects such as computer science, maths and physics, actually see a decrease in interest in girls with role models. Having a role model does still, however, match the European trend of almost halving the number of girls not interested in STEM.

In contrast, Russian girls show the largest overall interest in STEM subjects and fields for girls with role models (55 percent), with 35 percent of girls without STEM role models still registering an interest in STEM.

Germany, on the other hand, shows the biggest jump in terms of the interest shown in school subjects when a role model is present (20 percent), while Ireland has some of the highest number of girls – both with and without STEM role models – who can imagine themselves working in a STEM field.

Please download the official report below and visit our ‘Changing the face of STEM’ hub for more information.