Academic research – not to mention teachers’ experience – tells us that, when they are 11, girls are just as interested in STEM subjects as boys but that by the age of 16 this interest has declined sharply. But why is this the case? Stereotypes perhaps? Or simply a lack of successful female role models in STEM fields?

The American company Mattel has recently released a new STEM themed Barbie doll. They hope that “Robotics Engineer Barbie” might encourage more girls to continue their STEM studies by confounding some of those initial stereotypes.

2018, though, is not the first time that the eponymous doll has pursued a career in STEM. Since her first appearance in 1959, Barbie has been an astronaut, scientist, video game developer, and computer engineer.

Why does this matter?

A diverse workforce brings with it a range of experience and perspectives. This breadth of experience a valuable resource when it comes to designing solutions and solving problems and is impossible to achieve any other way than having a diverse workforce. Currently, only 24 percent of the UK STEM workforce are women. So, does Britain need more female role models in the STEM sector to encourage more girls to join?

Cultural Conditioning

STEM Women is an organisation which exists to support and promote the presence of women in STEM. It’s founder, Dr Buddhini Samarasinghe has explained in industry publications how if you ask young children to draw scientists or engineers, they will draw both male and female characters. After a certain age, though, this changes, and the children draw predominantly older, white men; Einstein characters. This Dr Samarasinghe says that this is down to cultural conditioning, that society teaches children – even now in 2018 – that the STEM professions are ‘male’.

Girls interest in STEM doesn’t drop by the age of 16 because they lose interest in the subjects, Dr Samarasinghe explains, but because it’s impossible for them to picture themselves as a scientist, or an engineer. The very real lack of strong female role models in STEM is what prevents most girls carrying on their STEM studies.

It’s not just about Barbie.

Ask Dr Samarasinghe what she thinks of the Robotics Engineer Barbie – as one magazine did – and you’ll elicit a pretty withering response that Mattel are simply using it as a marketing opportunity. And, of course, they are far from the only ones to do so.

STEM – and especially supporting women into STEM – is seen as a fashionable cause at present. Last year’s “Star Wars” movie was surrounded by a sponsored advertising initiative purporting to be about encouraging girls into STEM. And many of the UKs major energy and engineering firms have also undertaken advertising campaigns on the subject.

There has even been a “Little Miss Inventor” book for very young children – one of the “Mr Men” series. Of course, this is a valuable step in enabling young children to question gender roles and in challenging the conditioned stereotypes, but will initiatives like this really help to encourage more girls into scientific or engineering careers?

Of course, it is undeniably a good thing that these organisations are encouraging females to apply, but all the advertising in the world will not achieve change as long as structural barriers to women entering, and progressing within, STEM careers remain.

Supporting women into and during STEM careers

Evidence from the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) shows that it is not just getting women into quality STEM jobs, but also keeping them in the field and enabling them to have rewarding, successful careers, which is the issue. WES recently ran a campaign which revealed that only 11% of the entire UK engineering workforce are women, although in junior or graduate roles that percentage is much higher.

Women begin their careers in STEM, battling through an often sexist series of studying, examinations, and interviews to do so, but then find that there are few if any opportunities for progression, or that there is little opportunity to maintain a health work/life balance and have a family.

The WES argue that women need more leadership and mentoring to support them in developing their STEM careers. They say that the UK needs to make STEM careers more accessible to women, by encouraging young girls and women in the field and creating the positive role models they need to see that a career in STEM really is something to which they can aspire. In order to achieve this, though, WES say that the industry needs to dramatically improve the quality of leadership – and the number of women in senior roles so that there are real opportunities for career progression for female engineers and scientists.