How do we attract more girls into STEM subjects?

Girl with Virtual Reality goggles

How do we attract more girls into STEM subjects?

Science, technology, engineering and maths subjects suffer from a distinct gender imbalance post-16. The trend continues into Further Education, Apprenticeships and the workplace, with only 13% of the UK STEM workforce being female. How do we encourage more young women to study STEM subjects beyond GCSE and consider a career in science, technology, engineering or maths? 

Reaching girls with STEM messages

Have you heard about the inspirational Jess Wade? She has written 270 Wikipedia articles in the past year to address the gender imbalance in the sciences and recognise the contribution of great women to the sciences. A link to an article about Jess is here.

Jess is a post-doctoral researcher at Imperial College London and the creator of some impressive doodles. They are the sort of images that could inspire girls into STEM subjects and careers.

Rethinking Science Careers Doodle STEM subjects

“I kind of realised we can only really change things from the inside,” she says. “Wikipedia is a really great way to engage people in this mission because the more you read about these sensational women, the more you get so motivated and inspired by their personal stories.”

Articles like this one from BBC Focus Magazine are great but are preaching to the converted. If you subscribe to the magazine you’re already into science. It’s unlikely that their content will reach those we’re trying to encourage into STEM subjects.

In contrast to the big advertising campaigns of the past Jess’ approach is refreshing – considering where young people will look for information and providing it there (in this case Wikipedia). The starting point for most young people’s information is the world wide web.

Getting information out there is the first step in a process of persuasion. If we don’t publish information about female role models their achievements become ‘best-kept secrets’ and we can’t expect the scientists of the future to look up to them.

Granted, Jess’ efforts alone won’t redress the gender imbalance, but the sum of many small actions can make an impact.

But what will really persuade girls and young women that STEM subjects are relevant to them, and that careers in science and engineering are attractive?

Science Grrl’s report highlights 3 key issues to address:

  • Relevance of STEM = Is it for people like me?
  • Perceived ability = Do I feel confident?
  • Science capital = Can I see the pathways and possibilities?

Addressing unconscious bias

It’s not enough to ‘market’ STEM subjects and careers to young women when they are surrounded by unconscious (or deliberate) bias that paints a picture that STEM subjects are not for girls. From pink toys and to the careers advice they receive, there are hundreds of messages every day that may discourage girls from careers in science and technology. Female role models are often in the minority, and whilst there are lots of initiatives such as Geek Girls who provide networking opportunities and offer speakers for schools.

What we’re lacking is a concerted central campaign to address bias in the media, schools, and parents. Lots of great work is happening in pockets but without co-ordination, we will never get the benefit of the sum of the parts.

Using scientific marketing techniques

It seems that many previous outreach initiatives, no matter how well-meaning are using out of date marketing and communication techniques that just aren’t resonating with the target audiences. In some cases, they may even be reinforcing the unconscious bias that exists. There are lots of examples of bits of best practice out there but lots of different organisations, but no over-arching strategy or approach that brings it all together. To encourage more girls into STEM subjects we need to take a different approach to communications.

Firstly, we need to take a scientific approach to marketing. Let’s analyse and evaluate all the research evidence we have. Let’s generate up-to-date qualitative insight from talking to people in our target groups – parents, teachers, career advisors, and young women. This will help us to understand the barriers to girls studying STEM subjects and the type of approaches that might persuade them to think again. This discovery process often as not turns up some unexpected gems that can be the make or break of comms activity.

Secondly, we need to use the channels and messaging that will grab our audience’s attention, get them to reassess their choices, and make STEM subjects an appealing option for study and career. As with any marketing activity involving younger people, it’s crucial to avoid being ‘granddad on the dance floor’ and creating something that the older people think is cool, but is really not.

Using growth-marketing techniques of rapid test-and-learn, generating great content, creating user-centric experiences and strategic partnerships are essential for any influencing campaign.

Gone are the days of creating some adverts and pushing them out for people to see and act on.

test and learn process

How can we attract girls into STEM subjects and careers?

With the absence of a centrally-led initiative, we must all push ahead with individual projects to tackle the gender imbalance in STEM subjects.  What does your training organisation do to recruit more female students? How do you encourage female applicants to roles at your company? What does your school or college do to make STEM subjects appealing to all students?

Working from the ground up we can make a difference, but imagine what collaboration and co-ordination could deliver.

If you’d like to discuss how your organisation can address the gender imbalance in STEM subjects and careers get in touch for bespoke consultancy advice.

Also published on Medium.

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Roisin Kirby is an experienced Marketing Consultant based in Nottingham (UK), specialising in education and services marketing. A Chartered Marketer and Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Marketing.

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