Girls and STEM: why we cannot afford to wait

This blog is written by Kathleen Noonan, Director, Philanthropies & Education Communications, Microsoft Europe. It is the fifth in a new blog series on women, work and economic empowerment

The Tim Hines school in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. The school sets a good example of how community efforts and the involvement of parents make a positive impact for students.
Honduras, August 2017
Credit: GPE/Carolina Valenzuela

My sister is an engineer, and I work in the technology industry in a non-tech role. What influenced the subject choices we both made throughout our studies at school and university? Who and what influenced the decisions we made about our career paths? One of us chose a career in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and one of us did not. But why? Over the past year, I found that I am not alone in asking these questions.

Girls, STEM and assumptions

It’s commonly accepted that many girls’ interest in STEM subjects wanes as they enter their early teens. But until now, we’ve never known the exact age at which this happens or determined the reasons why. Earlier this year, Microsoft set out to establish just this in the most in-depth European study conducted on this topic to-date, spanning 12 European countries: Belgium, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Slovakia and UK.

With guidance from Professor Martin W Bauer at the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science at the London School of Economics (LSE), Microsoft held focus groups with 54 girls in nine markets (Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Ireland, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia and the UK) who shared their views on science, technology, engineering and maths-related subjects. Insights from these focus groups were then used to inform a quantitative survey of 11,500 girls.

The findings showed that, on average, there is just a four-year window within which to foster European girls’ passion for STEM; while most young girls become attracted to STEM subjects at the age of 11-and-a-half, their interest drops off sharply by the age of 15.

Importantly, the research also revealed the path to preventing this decline: better role models, parental and teacher support, practical experience and knowledge of STEM subjects’ application in the real world, and belief they will be treated as equally as men working in STEM.

As I reflect on the choices that my sister and I made about our studies and careers, this research provides a level of clarity on what influenced those decisions. It also prompted an insightful conversation with my sister about the impact of role models and the significance of support early on.

‘Anything is possible, but only if I’m treated equally’

Women have been historically underrepresented in the technology sector and here in Europe women make up just 30% of the ICT workforce. Globally, only 16% of STEM graduates are women. These numbers need to change.

Our research uncovered an encouraging consensus among young women: the belief that their generation is the first in which ‘women and men will be truly equal in all areas of society’. Yet, despite this, only 42% of girls said they would actually consider pursuing a STEM-related career in the future. Paradoxically, 59% admitted they would feel more confident pursuing a career in STEM fields if they knew that women and men were already equally employed in these professions.

Not everywhere is equal

The research also found girls’ attitudes towards STEM vary wildly from country to country. In some places, confidence is a major barrier, while in others, peer approval or lack of role models is holds young women back the most. It is clear that there’s no ‘one size-fits-all’ approach to tackling this problem; solutions need to be targeted at overcoming specific local barriers.

Encouragement and mentorship are key

So, what are the steps we collectively need to take to drive greater change among girls? Certainly, as the findings show, we need to start with encouragement and mentorship. These are two of the five statistically important drivers impacting girls’ interest in STEM subjects, as ranked by girls and young women themselves:

  1. Seeing female role models in STEM fields
  2. Gaining practical experiences and hands-on exercises in STEM subjects
  3. Having teachers who encourage them to pursue STEM
  4. Learning about real-life applications that show what they can do with STEM subjects
  5. Feeling more confident that men and women are treated equally in STEM careers

Encouragement and mentorship at this key point in girls and young women’s lives is critical. For my sister, early encouragement and mentorship were vital to her studies and, ultimately, her pursuit of a career in engineering. She often speaks of the influence one high-school maths teacher had in motivating and persuading her to continue as she moved through trigonometry and calculus. My sister also mentions the importance of a decision-making meeting she had during a university tour with a female engineering professor who spoke with my sister about her own career path,encouraging my sister to stay the course.

From insights to action

Over the past decade, employment in Europe’s technology sector has grown three times faster than overall employment. Cultivating girls’ initial interest in STEM and encouraging them to pursue careers in these fields can create greater job security for the next generation. It can also improve Europe’s wider economy; if we had as many women as men in the digital jobs market, the EU’s annual GDP could be boosted by €9 billion.

The insights gained from this research can help educators, policy-makers and companies understand the challenges young European women face when it comes to pursuing STEM subjects, and take practical steps to help them overcome them. For Microsoft, it is helping us tailor our partnerships with NGOs in Europe, as well as the programmes we offer to girls and young women. Through our DigiGirlz programme, we organise annual trainings and mentoring sessions for girls in in more than 15 countries across the region. Using the insights from this research, we are now modifiying this programme to feature more women in STEM who can talk to the girls and young women about their experiences. In the UK, we also have made financial and technology investments in Modern Muse, a new online platform that helps match girls and young women with professional women from a variety of career backgrounds who can provide coaching and mentorship support.

Whether you’re working on cancer research, finding renewable energy, or designing the cars of the future, the jobs of today and tomorrow will all require a basic understanding of new technologies. All citizens should be able to take full advantage of the opportunities promised by these advances in technologies. This research provides an actionable start to ensure that all benefit.

While my study and career choices are already made, my young daughter will be making decisions for her future soon. Through this research I’m better able to understand the important influences on her study and career choices and support those in the best way that I can.

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