Stop Rebranding Engineering and Start Rethinking Education Policy #INWED17
Today, Friday 23rd June, is International Women in Engineering Day. Up-and-down the country engineers are centre stage in classrooms, laboratories and lecture theatres inspiring tens of thousands of school girls. And they are inspired – because engineers do some incredible stuff. They are responsible for the design of nano-sized drug delivery systems that can be guided around our body using magnets, atomic-sized water filtration systems for the developing world and solar panels that can be printed onto plastic sheets. And I am glad we celebrate them. It is the endless circular discussion in the build-up to International Women in Engineering Day that worries me: “girls don’t pick engineering because they don’t feel [insert ‘masculine’ adjective here]”. It is not the girls that need fixing: they are NOT responsible for the skills gap.
“In Shut Down and Restart, the Royal Society reported that “there are simply not enough teachers with sufficient subject knowledge and understanding to deliver a rigorous Computer Science curriculum”.
Take the current rhetoric around girls in computing, where the media has decided girls opt-out of computer science GCSE in the UK because of the “nerdy image” that it is “for boys”. Hearing grown-ups describe subjects as ‘nerdy’ is hardly going to excite anyone. Before the Information and Communication Technology GCSE became Computing, girls made up 40% of all candidates. The exam has been upgraded to include building and programming, but… the teachers haven’t. In Shut Down and Restart, the Royal Society reported that “there are simply not enough teachers with sufficient subject knowledge and understanding to deliver a rigorous Computer Science curriculum”. In 2012, they estimated 66% of computer science teachers were not qualified to teach the subject. And despite years of offering accredited CPD, in 2016, the British Computing Society (BCS) said teachers wouldn’t feel comfortable enough to teach computer science until 2021. The same teachers attend all the BCS sessions and those who really need it do not have time to attend alongside regular school commitments. If you were a teenage girl picking her GCSEs, would you pick a “nerdy” one where your teachers were as new to the subject as you? And would you choose it for A-Level when very few universities require it for a computer science degree (favouring further maths)?
In May 2017, the Institute of Mechanical Engineers decided the gender gap came from “being a lonely female in a class of boys”, and advised undergraduate engineering courses to drop their requirements for A-Level physics. Across all professional sectors, quotas to increase the representation of women in senior positions are divisive. All agree this is a fight for equality and is one of equal opportunity, not softened entry levels. But what do teenage girls hear? “The country needs you! There are only [insert miserable percentage here] women in [some profession], but we appreciate that you are not good enough to enter by conventional means”. And don’t even get me started on the word ‘female’.
“The shortage of engineering graduates in this country is certainly a big problem – but one we haven’t approached in an academic way.”
When faced with a problem; scientists and engineers collect evidence, design a method, take data and find a solution. Invariably they will stop, reassess and collaborate. The shortage of engineering graduates in this country is certainly a big problem – but one we haven’t approached in an academic way. In 2016, the RAEng’s STEM Education Landscape estimated that there were more than 300 STEM educational providers and more than 15 organisations focussed solely on diversity. Even amongst the 40+ engineering bodies, who one might assume would have the same ‘targets’, there has been little evidence of working together or reporting on evaluated activities. There is no mechanism or incentive for saying when projects haven’t worked. In 2017, if you think your profession isn’t equal and diverse, you employ an equality and diversity officer who goes on a training course and sets up a work-experience scheme. But as Professor Uff’s 2016 review of the engineering profession highlights: those who “engage with STEM promotion show a very positive response, there is no evidence that the same level of interest is maintained and translated into subject choices”. Despite all this, there is hope: the Institute of Physics’ Improving Gender Balance project, which was thoroughly evaluated, saw a three-fold increase in the number of girls in physics A-Level classes.
The summer and new academic year will bring different challenges. The shift to linear A-levels and restriction of choice in year 12 (choosing three subjects for AS and A2) will likely see girls in physics and further maths worse affected. Instead of focussing on the young people themselves, could we use the money and effort to support and fund our teachers? Could teaching become a profession that is as highly regarded as medicine, finance or law? Let’s stop telling young “females” that “nerdy” subjects will get them “highly-paid jobs”, and acknowledge that the skills gap is our responsibility, not theirs.
Jess is a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Physics and Centre for Plastic Electronics at Imperial College London, where she makes circularly polarised organic light emitting diodes. Throughout her career in research she has been involved in projects to support gender inclusion in science. Jess works with the Institute for Research in Schools and Institute of Physics to try and support teachers and students across the country. @jesswade (I can give you more)