Half a job, no future

Features editor

The UK has to address the gender gap in STEM if we’re going to have a future as an advanced manufacturing and technology nation. It’s a simple matter of demographics, and other sectors show it can be done.

During my morning perusal of Twitter over breakfast (it’s a bad habit, I know) a provocative comment from science writer and campaigner Ben Goldacre caught my eye. Nothing surprising in that — provocative comments are pretty much Dr Goldacre’s stock in trade — but this one seemed particularly apposite. Linking to a preview piece on David Cameron’s speech to the Tory conference later today, where the prime minister will talk about how ‘Britain’s future is at stake’, Goldacre commented ‘Blah future of Britain blah. Whatevs. Proper education for science, IT and engineering. Everything else is bullshit.’

It’s an opinion which, I’m certain, will find some sympathy with readers of The Engineer; equally, I’d be very surprised if Cameron mentions anything to do with it in his speech. While it’s not unacknowledged, the importance of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) education to the future of Britain — indeed, to any economy — tends to play second fiddle to the importance of economics.

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Medical engineeering is one of the few STEM sectors where women and men are equally represented

You could certainly argue with with Goldacre’s comment and it’s certainly not the full story. But it’s a fact that without people who are qualified to work with technology, in all its diverse definitions and sectors, the UK isn’t going to prosper in years to come.

It also chimed with something that’s been on my mind since last week, with the news from the Institute of Physics last week that almost half of all mixed state-funded schools in the UK put no girls forward for physics A-level last year, while only 12 per cent of schools put no boys forward. That’s worrying. It’s a fair bet that if you don’t do physics A-level, you aren’t going to apply for an engineering course at university. And it indicates that there’s still something worryingly skewed about STEM education in the UK. Put simply, it means that we’re missing out on the potential talent of a large proportion of the population.

People might argue that this statistic might just indicate that 16-year-old girls just aren’t that interested in physics — and I’d direct them towards this article by Cambridge physics professor Athene Donald which points out the errors in that view. It certainly seems counterintuitive — children are curious about everything, but it takes the right encouragement to develop that curiosity and reveal where aptitudes lie, both for girls and boys. While it’s true that there are more male role models in stem than female STEM ones, women who work in science and technology are hardly absent, both in history and in the present; and there certainly seems to have been a real effort by broadcasters in recent years to improve the gender balance in the presenters and experts put forward to communicate STEM matters.

It’s not as though the situation can’t change, either. We’ve seen an enormous change in one sector of the STEM world in the last few decades — Ben Goldacre’s own sector, as it happens. Back in the early 1980s, medicine was a very male profession. Now, intakes for medical schools are slightly more female than male. If medicine can change, why not engineering, IT and technology?

Everybody knows that we’re facing a skills gap in engineering at the moment. It’s simple demographics — the cadre of engineers who entered the profession in the 1970s, when Britain’s manufacturing industry was still relatively strong and diverse, are now in the mid-50s and will retire in the next ten years. These experienced engineers, because of the prevailing gender environment at the time, are almost all male. But we know that we need every recruit we can get if we’re going to replace these people. And that means that we can’t just look at the section of the population with a Y chromosome. Anyway, why should we?

We can argue on and on about how to make engineering a more attractive environment for women. But if girls aren’t studying the foundation sciences at an advanced level, those changes won’t even be relevant. Proper education is vital if we’re to be a successful nation in future, and it’s vital if we’re to encourage and nourish curiosity in future generations as well. That has to mean both genders of future generations, or we’re only doing half a job.