Resilience through diversity

Alex Knight CEng FIMechE FWES, Founder and CEO of STEMAZING, says you can’t be what you can’t see.

Research by Engineering UK showed that 73% of 11-14-year-olds don’t know what engineers do. Shockingly, 69% of parents don’t know what engineers do either – and 42% of teachers don’t feel confident giving engineering career advice. Is it any wonder then that we don’t have enough people choosing to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and going into STEM careers such as engineering?

The STEM skills shortage is estimated to cost employers in the UK £1.5bn a year. While the cost to the economy is huge, the cost to the future is even greater.

Innovation in STEM is key to solving some of our biggest global challenges. A vital ingredient for innovation is diversity, a well-known challenge in STEM subject areas. Black and ethnic minority workers make up only 12% of the UK STEM workforce, and only 24% are women. When you look at engineering alone it’s much worse, with only 14% women. Addressing this lack of diversity is one reason why diverse STEM role models are so important.

Role models can inform, influence and inspire the decisions people make about their life and career. The lack of visible diverse STEM role models spanning the breadth of career opportunities in STEM is a key contributor to the skills shortage problem. In short, we need to inspire and influence a wider pool of talent if we are going to build a sustainable engineering sector.

Research shows that children aged three-to-five years old already show less support for counter-stereotypical STEM career choices, such as a girl who wants to be an engineer. This is a major problem for STEM industries as these biases are established young and then reinforced over time.

Research shows that girls who only interact with male STEM educators reinforce the negative stereotype that they don’t belong in STEM. Increasing the number of female STEM educators is one obvious way to address this problem. The surprising evidence is that boys who interact with female STEM educators don’t think they are any less able or respected, but they have a more equitable view of girls and women in STEM so their experience is also positive.

In addition, a study presented in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology showed that early childhood is a key window through which educational interventions aimed at fostering female engagement with STEM may have a greater impact. So diverse role models benefit everyone, and the younger this engagement happens, the better.

The STEMAZING Inspiration Academy offers women in STEM a four-month programme of training and workshops to build their confidence with public engagement before running fun, interactive sessions at primary schools. Places for schools are prioritised by the percentage of families on free school meals to ensure we are reaching the highest-need areas. As it is an online programme, women anywhere in the world can take part. In just two years of running the programme, 250 women in STEM from around the world have delivered 55,000 STEMAZINGKids experiments for young children.

However, this is only part of the long-term solution. Recruiting more diverse people does not bring the potential benefits unless those diverse perspectives can thrive – and this, in turn, will bring resilience to the profession.

For more on STEMAZING, visit stemazingltd.com

Image credit | iStock

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