Tech Girls, The Foreign Secretary and the STEM conundrum

If, like me, you keep up with the tech pages, you’ll be aware that the Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, recently made a big announcement about the importance of getting more girls to study STEM subjects.

Irrespective of your political views, this is surely all well and good: anything we can do to help drive up the numbers of women working in tech and other STEM areas should be applauded. However … in 2014, when the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Education and Childcare, a certain Liz Truss, visited Imperial College in London she outlined the need for better Maths and Science teaching to encourage more pupils to take up STEM subjects after the age of 16 - particularly young girls and those from less affluent backgrounds.

At that visit to Imperial, she introduced the Government's new policies and funding to help schools inspire pupils to take up STEM subjects, including an £11 million investment in ‘Maths Hubs,’ as well as the creation of Maths and Physics chairs and the introduction of postgraduate specialists to go into classrooms to run master classes and help schools link up with businesses and universities.

Fast forward to January 29th 2022 and a headline in the Telegraph proclaims, “Liz Truss launches plan to encourage more women into STEM jobs.”  That article goes on to say that “Ms Truss, the Foreign Secretary and equalities minister, is forming two taskforces to examine ways to boost the representation of women in STEM jobs  and at the helm of start-ups. One of the panels will come up with proposals to boost the number of women in STEM roles amid concern that a recent rise in the uptake of science, technology, engineering and maths A-levels and undergraduate courses is failing to translate into an increase in the proportion of women being hired in related careers.”

Pausing only to wonder what the powers-that-be have been doing since that 2014 initiative, I then came across a very recent, substantial and detailed piece of research involving 500,000 students in 80 countries, carried out by the universities of Essex and Missouri. Here, the results showed “that girls performed similarly to or better than boys in science in two of every three countries, and in nearly all countries, more girls appeared capable of college-level STEM study than had enrolled.” So far, so good, but the researchers also found “a tendency for larger differences (in the percentage of women going into STEM) to appear in gender-equal countries, such as Finland, Norway or Sweden.”  In fact, and as we have noted before in our blog pages, it’s in countries such as Morocco or the UAE that proportionately far more young women aspire to STEM or related careers.

Sad to report, but this recent research replicates the findings of a similar study carried out more than 100 years ago in 1918, both of which seem to suggest that it’s nature rather than nurture that determines at least some of what we do in our careers. In the modern case, David Geary, the professor of psychological sciences at Missouri University said: "Sex differences in career choices and outcomes are often blamed on social factors, such as stereotypes and bias. Our study shows that many of these differences are universal and larger in equalitarian societies, suggesting there are biological influences on peoples' occupational preferences."

That’s as may be, however, in my view, it does not mean we should not be trying much harder to redress the imbalance between men and women in tech jobs.  And with that in mind, tomorrow I’ll publish a story of a heroic female role model whose career in IT is something we can all aspire to…

Nikola Kelly, MD, Be-IT Resourcing and Be-IT Projects

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