It is 34 years almost to the day since I walked into Imperial College as an undergraduate student of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the tender age of 19.
What that first day involved was sitting in a lecture theatre with overwhelmingly white, male and privately-educated peers to learn “our” college song in an atmosphere which I now recognise as a public school debating society. Having grown up in the socialist state of Newcastle upon Tyne, I was annoyed, a little intimidated but not daunted.
I knew that I was part of an advance guard of what would soon be an army of female engineers and that just as in medicine and the law—professions which had been traditionally male—engineering would become increasingly gender balanced.
Back then 12 per cent of my fellow students were women. Today while women now make up 43 per cent of GPs and about half of solicitors, the proportion of female engineering students has barely increased. Engineering in the UK has the lowest representation of women in Europe—10 per cent.
So what are we doing wrong and how can we fix it?
Studies show that teenagers, especially girls, are more likely to engage with science and engineering if they have “science capital” in their lives. This is often about who you know. If you have parents or relatives who work in science you will have a head start in understanding what Stem really means and what science jobs are really like.
I knew I wanted to be an engineer from a young age but I had no real role models to inspire me—there weren’t any scientists on the council estate where I grew up. Luckily, I benefitted from great teachers at my local state schools who supported me in my choices and helped me to understand that girls could be just as good at maths as boys.
We need to encourage and equip teachers so that they can make this difference, providing experience and knowledge of science to children who haven’t inherited it from their parents. Unfortunately the government simply hasn’t been doing this in recent years. Instead they’ve cut school budgets which has impacted specialist Stem teaching and careers advice in particular. It’s now the case that working-class pupils are less likely to…