Energy company EDF Energy encourages girls to be curious about science, to develop their inquisitive side and to be ambitious. Margherita Zorzetto, Business in the Community Diversity Adviser shares her thoughts on how this aspiration is being put in action.
Recently I had the opportunity to attend a workshop for school girls, hosted by EDF Energy. The event is part of the Pretty Curious campaign the organisation has been running for a couple of years. Along with a myriad of other initiatives and events, this series of workshops seek to address the dire under-representation of girls studying STEM ( Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects and the resulting under-representation of women in (often well-paying) STEM jobs. During November 2016, 1600 school girls had the opportunity to participate.
In the UK, 6% of engineers are women, the smallest ratio of women engineers in Europe. In Latvia and Bulgaria 30% of engineers are women, in Sweden 25%, and in Italy 20%. In the UK, just 12.8% of the UK STEM workforce are women. 1
While there is little gender difference in take-up of and achievement in STEM GCSE subject2, girls account for only 20% of students taking A Level physics and other STEM subjects. Worryingly, this has not changed in the last 25 years3.
Given the skill shortage forecast and EDF Energy's commitment to creating a thriving, engaging and diverse work environment that stimulates innovation and provides a quality work experience, it is easy to see why organisations like EDF are being proactive in encouraging girls to consider a career in engineering and other STEM fields.
With this in mind, I travelled to the workshop, curious to hear from young girls about their thoughts on studying and working in STEM.
The workshop was taking place in a pop-up inflatable dome structure, buzzing with excitement and activities. A lot of organisers’ thoughts and effort had gone into creating a stimulating, lively environment, with great music, fun corners teeming with interesting ultramodern technology to try out and plenty of opportunities for hands-on activities. The event was mostly staffed by STEM university students (mostly young women), who guided the girls through the activities and talked knowledgeably about the technology on display, but actually, were also able to offer a very relatable example of a young person, that has chosen to pursue a career in a STEM field and that had recently gone through the process of successfully enrolling in a STEM degree course.
While the girls were busy exploring the virtual reality tasks, trying out wearable technology or working at their very own prototype for a new usable tech product, I had a chance to have a good chat with a few of them.
Learning through competition and the time factor
Girls were excited to have been given the opportunity to take part in the workshop. They had a clear idea of why the invitation had gone only to girls: they told me that in their class, girls are less likely to be enthusiastic about science and math than boys. I asked them why they thought that was. Some of them said that boys in their class tended to be more competitive, and therefore more likely to want to shine when it came to tasks in a lab or a math speed test. They said that girls can be put off and take something of a back- seat as a result. I thought that they were making an interesting point. I know that a lot of the math review and testing in class, as early as in primary school, is based on speed: timing how fast pupils can complete a set of questions. This more competitive way of motivating learning may suit boys more than girls. When my daughter was selected for an inter-school math competition, (the only girl in her school and one of the few girls in the competition), she found the lack of other girls intimidating. The competition involved a series of ‘duels’ where the faster would win. She found the time component off-putting and performed significantly worse than she had under the less pressurised selection in her school. Some of the boys in her team loved the competitive element and the speed factor.
When I taught a math club as a volunteer in the local school, I witnessed this myself. The girls in the group seemed to be more reflective, while immediately the boys became quite competitive with each other racing to get the answer first (whether it was the right answer or whether they understood what they were doing to get there didn’t seem to be of much concern). The girls in my little club did shut down as a result.
Perhaps it is necessary to take a critical look at the use of competitions, particularly time-based, as a way to engage pupils. Of course, there are plenty of girls that enjoy it, but I think it is possible that fewer girls than boys may respond well to this format of learning.
When I first started the advanced math club, I agreed with the teachers that they would select the pupils that most enjoyed math and that were better at it. A boy-only group was selected. After a couple of weeks, I pushed back and asked the teachers why a girl or girls had not been selected. The teachers agreed to have a second look, and a few girls were added. Interestingly, they turned out to be just as or more proficient, than their male peers. Even more, interestingly, the selecting teachers were male and female, progressive, dedicated, amazing teachers that want nothing more than to offer the best learning opportunities to all their pupils. I am sure they never intended to exclude girls. My best guess is that, when it comes to it, we all hold some unconscious, yet pervasive, bias about gender and math and science. As we are usually not aware of this, we are less able to control for it.
Chatting with a group of girls, while they were busy creating a circuit for their self-warming lunch box prototype, I learnt more about how they viewed science. They told me they primarily see themselves as creative, and as a result, are drawn to subjects such as literacy, art and music. They said that the workshop gave them an opportunity to discover that science can be a very creative process too and that because of this experience, they were starting to re-evaluate some of their bias about STEM subjects.
I think that EDF Energy's workshop goes very much in the right direction. I don’t doubt that it would have helped many of the several hundreds of girls participating to revaluate science, reconsider some of their preconceptions. They would have had a glimpse of possible career outcomes they are unlikely to have previously associated with studying STEM, for example, being involved in the development of services and products that are so relevant to them and their lifestyle.
In addition, the teachers chaperoning the event may have had the opportunity to reflect on how to recognise girls’ aptitude for science and how to encourage girls to consider a STEM career.
Most importantly, having spoken to some of the girls, I left feeling confident that the day had provided them with an opportunity to consider their future directions through a critical gender lens, one that encourages and empowers them to be ambitious and to consider all the opportunities that are open to them.
1: WISE analysis of Labour Force Survey, April - August 2014
2: Institute of physics – ‘It’s Different for Girls’ research 2014
3: Joint Council for Qualifications, which represents the seven largest bodies in the UK from their online sites