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Celebrating the importance of women in STEM – why the sky should never be the limit

With the announcement that one of the next people to walk on the moon will be a woman, but a persistent lack of girls and women in STEM education and careers, what can be done?

All this week, NASA is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the historic Apollo 11 mission and the first lunar landing. For anyone too young to have witnessed it, it’s impossible to overestimate the significance of this event. When it happened, it effectively opened the door to a new era of curiosity and discovery – symbolising how anything is possible. But, at that time, seemingly only possible if you were a man.

Back then, President Eisenhower and NASA decided that astronauts should be selected from a pool of military test pilots – and the military did not allow women to be pilots. JoAnn Morgan, the instrumentation controller for the mission, was the only woman allowed inside that famous room where NASA employees were locked during lift off – and she needed special permission to be there.

Since then, six NASA missions have successfully landed 12 people on the surface of the moon – all of them men – and, of the more than 500 people who have flown to space, just 64 have been women.

But now NASA has announced plans to put a woman on the moon. In the words of NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine: “The first woman will be an American on the surface of the moon in five years. That is an extreme declaration and a charge that we are going to live up to at NASA… I have a daughter who is 11 years old, and I want her to be able to see herself in the same role as the next women that go to the moon.”

So times are changing, but slowly. The reality is that women are still vastly underrepresented in science and tech careers.

What’s the challenge?

Data published in February this year, by the Department of Education, shows school girls in England are substantially less likely than boys to consider taking STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects at A-Level. And, while the number of girls taking STEM A-Levels has increased by 26% since 2010, 15-year-old boys are more likely than girls to see STEM subjects as being useful when it comes to getting a job and girls are less likely to consider a STEM subject as their favourite.

The demand for STEM skills in the UK is reaching a critical point (UK industry is spending £1.5bn per annum on closing a shortfall of around 173,000 skilled workers), so it’s a business problem too – and one that we all need to address.

Engaging girls in STEM

Gender stereotypes are seen as a major cause of the gender imbalance when it comes to STEM. At Capita, we’re supporting the movement to inspire young people from all backgrounds to progress in STEM subjects and careers.

Claire Barker, Head of Service – Skills and Employability Service at Entrust, Capita’s joint venture with Staffordshire County Council, heads up a team that works in partnership with schools, academies, employers and local authorities to support young people and adults to develop their employability and skills. They are also passionate about empowering students and communities to make well-informed, realistic and aspirational decisions about their future.

Claire says: “We’re getting very positive feedback from the sessions that we run within schools. To me it’s about engaging with young people at an earlier age and making sure that the information they are provided with is current and up to date. And it’s about educating, children, teachers, parents and employers.” 

Capita and TechSheCan

Erline Boon, Head of Marketing and Communications, Link2ICT, represents Capita as one of the steering group companies helping to drive the Tech She Can Charter. Tech She Can is a commitment by organisations to work together to tackle the root cause of the problem by inspiring and educating young girls and women to get into tech careers.  Erline said: “It was a perfect assignment as it goes, as I work in the education technology division of Capita – Link2ICT. The work we do impacts children and young people every day and so I have a keen interest and insight to support our contribution to this amazing project.”

Erline is currently working with the team that is leading Tech We Can – a digital, free, female-friendly learning resource that is being piloted in schools. To remain inclusive, Tech We Can lessons are taught to boys as well as girls, with pilots underway with years 6, 7 and 8 in schools across the country. The aim is to widen its use further and is aimed at 10-13 year olds, before they choose their GCSE options.

It highlights female role models in tech, builds curiosity into technology and shows the breadth of tech careers available that may not have previously been considered. It has also been mapped to the National Curriculum and meets 6 of the 8 Gatsby criteria.

Our STEM ambassador scheme

Anita Camilleri, People Development Manager, Capita Real Estate and Infrastructure, works closely with local schools, colleges and universities to support the rise of female employment in traditionally male-dominated fields. One of her initiatives is to invite groups of female pupils to come to Capita and hear from aspirational female colleagues from fields such as road safety, bridges, tunnels, structures, geotech, architecture and surveying. These ‘ambassadors’ talk to the pupils about how important STEM subjects are and why, as a female, they took such a role. They explain why it is important for women to be engineers and how there are simply not enough. Anita then continues to works with these schools to encourage apprentices to join Capita – and she has now seen a bigger intake of female staff this year. She recently won the first ever 'Inspirational Woman' award at the Women in FCERM (flood and coastal erosion risk management) Awards for her work encouraging diversity in the sector.

Celebrating the importance of women in STEM and what is achievable

Anita says: “Hearing real life, inspirational stories has a positive impact – not just on pupil’s academic outcomes, but especially in relation to pupil engagement and enjoyment of STEM subjects, particularly in science and mathematics.  It gives an understanding to pupils of the value and applicability of STEM subjects in their careers.

“Industries like ours rely on a supply of science talent, at both graduate and technician level, but shortages are appearing that will hold our business back. Businesses are facing a serious challenge to access enough of these skills to compete and grow, so I believe we must educate more young women with the skills that will create flourishing careers and allow them take advantage of future opportunities. It’s about demonstrating that studying STEM will help them take advantage of the exciting opportunities our increasingly technologically driven and globally-connected world has to offer.”

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