Why are we still discouraging girls from studying STEM?

Edwina-Dunn1The advice I was given when leaving school was that I should consider a career as a secretary, nurse or teacher – those were the only options recommended. How much has this advice changed in the decades since? I would say, very little.

Well, nothing wrong with those careers but I would have liked to understand other options, especially higher paid, growth jobs. Today, career advice is still poor and inconsistent, and often relies on the well-meant but out-of-date anecdote of parents or teachers.

My early vision was a far cry from the life I eventually forged at DunnHumby. The reality I created in data and technology was not typically thought of as a career for women.

There were few senior females visible in business when I started out and, when we sold the business in 2011, there weren’t many more. However, at DunnHumby we had 1,500 people (half of them female), reaching 350 million customers in 25 countries across Europe, Asia and the Americas. This certainly made me feel proud and fulfilled.

Today, I am working hard to showcase more opportunities for women in leadership positions, especially in STEM, and set up The Female Lead in 2013. My motivation was born out of spending most of my career in retail boardrooms, made up entirely of men.

I believe that if we can surface more inspiring stories about women, it will create a more obvious and diverse pathway for girls planning their future careers, not just one that society may have imposed on them.

The disconnect between girls and STEM-related career paths happens during school. Our research has found that while nearly three-quarters (74%) of girls express an interest in STEM topics and careers, only 0.4% of girls end up choosing computer science for a degree.

Young girls are rarely encouraged to pursue maths and science, meaning they are missing out on fantastic careers such as forensic scientist, web or app developer, project planning engineer or even data/software scientist.

I want to encourage more girls to take STEM subjects. Pupils are often directed away from the more ‘challenging’ subjects, such as maths and science, due to a relentless focus on achieving high grades. This ultimately deprives them access to many high-paid and fast-growing careers.

Girls in particular underestimate their performance and so fewer girls take the subjects at A level than boys, despite girls getting better grades in GCSE maths and physics. But what is forgotten is that a lower grade in Maths, Physics or Chemistry is still disproportionately valued among most employers.

Girls grow up seeing men in powerful positions. You only have to search for CEO or leader on Google to see images of men and more men. There are more CEOs called Dave than there are female CEOs!

I sincerely believe that ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’. When you meet or hear about people doing amazing things in a similar field to yours, it reminds you what’s possible; ‘If they can do it, then why can’t I?’”

The Female Lead is now looking further up the career path to women at work, diversity and motherhood. We need to truly understand why women’s careers tail off mid-career when men’s do not and to help them find a way through.

Never has it been more important to improve gender and pay equality. Post-Covid, we will need all the talent we can bring to the fore in order to stimulate economic growth. Let’s make sure that women play an even bigger part in a collaborative tech-driven future.

Edwina Dunn, OBE, is founder of DunnHumby and The Female Lead and president of Starcount. She also sits on the boards of the Geospatial Commission and the Government Centre for Data Ethics & Innovation, where she is deputy chair

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