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Improving diversity in STEM and tech means finding new role models, says forum

Chris Middleton Profile picture for user cmiddleton January 30, 2024
Despite outreach programmes, a new government department, and more, diversity in STEM remains troublingly low. What are the key issues?

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(Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay )

Improving diversity and inclusion in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and maths] should be part of the mission of the UK’s Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT). So noted a Commons Select Committee in a report published in March 2023 – just a month after DSIT was formed.

Speaking nearly a year later, Greg Clark, Chair of the Commons’ Science, Innovation and Technology Committee, which issued that report, lamented that so little had changed:

In taking that evidence [from our Inquiry], we were really struck by – and frustrated by – the lack of progress that has been evident for so long, in an area, paradoxically, that is so dynamic.

The formation of a new government department was a positive move, and certainly an improvement on what existed before, where ‘digital’ was rolled into ‘culture, media, and sport’ in terms of departmental responsibility – aka a department for things the government did not take seriously, perhaps.

Clark continued:

Science and technology are not areas in which there is stability to the point of stasis, or in which nothing ever changes. Everything is constantly in tumult; the nature of scientific discourse is always challenged by new ideas. 

And so, in a sector that is in essence about change and about challenge, to find that there has been so little progress in making sure that the full diversity of talent that is available in the population gets into tech is, in many ways, paradoxical – and certainly very frustrating.

It is, and yet it is nothing new. 

Survey after survey has found that the technology sector is overwhelmingly the preserve of white males, usually from backgrounds of relative privilege. There is nothing wrong with being a white male, of course; the problem is more that teams that lack diversity tend – often unconsciously – to refer to their own constituents when designing products that should be equally useable by everyone. 

Plus, diverse businesses are adaptable, flexible, and more like the society that produces them; they should not deny opportunity, even without meaning to. And finally, there may be hundreds of thousands of talented young people out there who could be extraordinary assets to science and technology, yet many feel excluded by a world that does not seem relevant to them.

One of the key findings of the Committee’s Inquiry last year is particularly interesting. While attainment at school in subjects like Computing and Physics is practically identical for girls and boys, girls tend not to pursue them beyond a certain point. So, it is not the case that boys have a greater aptitude for STEM, as some people might believe.

Yet the figures are stark. Take Computing, for example: at GCSE level, just 22% of pupils are girls, but at A’Level that figure has fallen to 13%, yet the levels of attainment among boys and girls are the same. In fact, in some STEM subjects girls do slightly better.

So, the question is: why aren’t more girls pursuing subjects for which they have the same aptitude as boys, especially when so much of our daily life revolves around technology – and around STEM subjects in general? Why don’t girls see far more of an opportunity?

A more diverse set of role models

One finding from the Inquiry is that visible role models are “disproportionately important” for girls at school. Put another way, centuries in which women’s traditional role was seen as being in the home have crystalized the idea that men are the inventors, the innovators, the scientists, the entrepreneurs, and the thinkers – not to mention the leaders (just 224 of 650 British MPs – one third – are women, with only 88 in the government itself). 

Balancing that narrative in STEM demands that girls are aware of successful women to emulate, therefore, otherwise they will continue to believe that some jobs are ‘not for them’. The same applies to pupils from ethnic and other minority groups.

The Committee’s 2023 report noted:

We heard that children who were able to see themselves as scientists or engineers were more likely to pursue the required subjects. 

Katharine Birbalsingh – then-Chair of the Social Mobility Commission and headmistress at Michaela Community School in Wembley – agreed there was a link between under-representation of certain groups in STEM roles and which pupils chose to pursue an interest in STEM: 

[She told the Inquiry] ‘I totally believe in role models. We have people coming in from different backgrounds and professions to speak to the children. And they say, for instance, “This is what I do, and here are some things to think about.” We then make sure that all the children are signing up. You have 100 or so kids in each of these talks listening to what they are saying.’

The report added:

Professor Dame Athene Donald told us teachers, peers, and other role models could unconsciously reinforce societal stereotypes, particularly in co-educational schools.

Children’s depictions of scientists […] have become more gender diverse over time, but children still associate science with men as they grow older. These results may reflect that children observe more male than female scientists in their environments, even though women’s representation in science has increased.

Indeed. Meanwhile the technology sector itself tends to lionize the superstar male CEOs of Big Tech companies, where the phenomenon of the ‘tech bro’ reigns supreme: aggressive, opinionated, arrogant, and wealthy enough to challenge governments. This may put many girls and women off from working in the sector.

So, the criticism of some in society that it is somehow ‘woke’ to have diverse casts in TV dramas misses a key point: some public-service broadcasters are actively trying to help improve social mobility by pursuing more inclusive representations of how certain types of character are depicted.

Take the UK’s long-running Doctor Who series on the BBC: for several seasons viewers saw a woman, Jodie Whittaker, embody the heroic time traveller, problem-solver, explorer, hands-on engineer, and scientist – in storylines that often featured heroic women from history, too. In one episode a previous incarnation of the Doctor was revealed to be a black woman. And now they see a young black man, Ncuti Gatwa, in the same role.

Visibility like this can help kids believe that they have a role to play in the world, as scientists, problem solvers, explorers, physicists, and more. But it is even more important that young people see their role models in the real world, and not just in fictional portrayals.

It is also critical that STEM teachers themselves are of the highest quality and aware of the need to overcome stereotypes in terms of gender, ethnicity, and advantage. Speaking at a Westminster eForum on diversity in the UK tech workforce,Séverine Trouillet,Chief Executive of STEM Learning, said:

Sadly, it is not rare to hear that PE or English teachers have to supplement and teach science because there is a lack of science teachers within a particular school. So, our aim is to make sure that even non-specialist teachers have the confidence to ensure that they can teach and improve their pedagogy. 

Through this training, teachers usually get a better understanding of how to support pupils from a diverse range of backgrounds, including how to address gaps across gender and disadvantage. So, for us, this first line is absolutely essential to improve the quality of teaching and to increase diversity in STEM take-up.

And the second pillar is tackling stereotypes and reducing bias, she added. One initiative is the STEM Ambassadors programme. She explained:

This is routed via UKRI [UK Research & Investment]. We provide a national infrastructure that mobilizes 30,000 STEM ambassadors to go into schools, colleges, and community groups. And what I want to make sure of, as Chief Executive of STEM Learning, is that these STEM Ambassadors are relatable to children, because you can't be what you don't see.

Well put. Programmes like this are having a transformative effect, added Trouillet:

I want to share some feedback to make this come to life. Some of our teachers have come back to us and explained how the intervention of a STEM Ambassador in a school or classroom has changed the way that children think about their futures. 

One teacher told us, ‘We've got children who don't have many life experiences and people who don't visit beyond their estates, so they don't know a job even exists. So, they can't set their goals to achieve that sort of thing. 

‘Previously, 80% said they wanted to be YouTubers, footballers, or gamers, but the children were amazed when STEM Ambassadors talked to them about the global projects we're working on, and suddenly they had their horizons broadened and started to consider different careers.’ 

So, for us, it's key that these young people can increase their science capital by understanding what is actually out there.

Wonderful stuff. But aren’t there many high-profile role models out there in technology and science? Andy Heyes, Managing Director, UK&I & Central Europe, of specialist recruitment consultancy Harvey Nash observed:

We’re certainly not lacking in famous tech people. Six in 10 of the world's largest organizations are tech companies, and some of the world's most successful and richest people. But whether it’s the fact that none of them are British, and none of them are women, these role models seem distant to most people in the UK. 

We need a wider range of people, from teachers and parents to business leaders and government, to really champion the cause. And finally, we need new education pathways into tech.

Understanding where influence comes from

However, the fact that many scientists, professors, and leaders in areas such as artificial intelligence, robotics, and quantum technology are, in fact, women is often overlooked, while the UK has, over the years, also given us legendary figures such as Ada Lovelace, Alan Turing, and Sir Tim Berners-Lee. 

Despite this, neither female academics and business leaders (whom we fail to highlight enough) nor the nation’s many historic figures necessarily offer the right kind of inspiration to young people. Professor Dame Athene Donald told last year’s Inquiry that outreach activity varied in its effectiveness: 

You are often reaching the people who already have that kind of cultural capital. It is very important to reach out to people in disadvantaged areas, and that is always harder. We need diverse people going in. People from industry can really do good things by going in and talking about their day job. [But] an academic might not be the right person at all.

Bobby Seagull – East Ham-born son of Keralan Indian parents – has found an impressive new career as a broadcaster, maths advocate, and writer since working in finance before the 2008-09 financial crisis. He also works as a maths teacher in a London secondary school. 

He told the eForum: 

There’s this phrase ‘talent is equally distributed, but opportunity is not’.

I think this ties into how we can use messaging to young people to get across the idea that STEM is a really attractive career. Many students just don't watch TV, but many of them are glued to their phones. That’s where they get their information. And I think the battle for STEM uptake is going to be won on the playing fields of social media.

Where students get their info from, it's TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram. This is where they're consuming their diet of information outside of school hours, and sometimes even in school hours! So, we need to look at diverse content creators in STEM [not just professors and CEOs], because students can only be what they see. And I think content creation for STEM is egalitarian, because it rewards the most engaging content.

So, who might some of these influencers be? Seagull named a number of science rappers and other figures from the social media world who have set out to engage younger audiences in a positive way. 

He said:

One is called Big Manny. He has dreadlocks and wears a hoodie and creates content on chemistry and does experiments – so, not what many people might think of as a typical scientist. But he has 1.3 million Instagram followers. And my students say, ‘Sir! Did you see Big Manny do this experiment on indium, or on potassium?’

Another is [Dr] Josie Peters, she’s an astrophysicist and micro-influencer. She spends time talking about astrophysics and breaking down that career.

So, I think if we want to get young people into STEM careers, it's about showing them people who are similar to them, but who have those careers. Using social media as a platform, and working with organizations and institutions to support these ambassadors and STEM creatives

My take

It is good to see so many committed, positive people working to ensure greater diversity in UK STEM. However, the glacially slow progress at national level suggests that much more needs to be done.

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