Mind the STEM gap: how good careers advice can help close it

Research by the OECD has revealed the influence that gender stereotypes have on students’ career aspirations. We look at the role good careers advice has to play in closing both the gender and pay gap.

Mind the STEM gap: how good careers advice can help close it
Research has highlighted the influence of gender stereotypes on students who are at crossroads in their career path. It suggests that good careers advice is vital in helping students determine – regardless of gender – how they can translate their aptitudes and skills into viable careers.

Is the future set at age 15?

Students’ higher education choices are influenced by many different factors – careers advice, parents, teachers, peers and a student’s natural aptitude for a subject. In addition, global survey results from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) revealed the influence that gender stereotypes have on student’s decision-making.The OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey evaluates education systems worldwide by testing the science, maths and reading skills of 15-year-old students. Despite having similar PISA science scores to boys, the results indicate that 15-year-old girls are less likely than boys to picture themselves in a science and engineering career by the age of 30. Interestingly, in several countries such as Finland and Greece, girls perform better in science than boys at the same age, but the vast majority of girls are significantly less likely than boys to imagine themselves in a science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) career. Therefore, this suggests it has nothing to do with girls’ aptitude in science, and a lot more to do with stereotypes and the perception of male-only roles.Edd Williams, a recruitment and academic consultant and author of Is Your School Lying To You? describes the perception issue surrounding STEM subjects. “Women have historically been overlooked and ignored in the sciences – an imbalance that remains today. The nerdy mathletes from film and TV have done little to advance the STEM cause, but the likes of Elon Musk [business magnate and inventor] are helping to reverse its fortunes a little, as are people like Peggy Johnson – executive vice president of business development at Microsoft.”

Studying a STEM subject at higher education

The research also showed that students are highly influenced by the gender division in the job market and tended to reproduce the same patterns when choosing a subject to study at higher education. In some countries, the gender gap in a study subject is even greater than the gender gap in the profession it leads to.At higher education, girls largely dominate in the fields of education and health and welfare: subjects that tend to lead to female-dominated careers such as teaching and nursing; a self-perpetuating problem.In contrast, those who choose to study engineering, manufacturing, construction and ICT are most likely to be male. For example, across the 72 participating countries, only 20 per cent of new entrants to study ICT-related subjects are female.

The importance of good academic and careers advice

The UK government’s Industrial Strategy white paper highlighted the shortages in sectors that depend on STEM skills, and acknowledged that increasing the uptake of STEM subjects by girls is one of the ways to address the skills gap.
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One option to encourage more students to choose STEM subjects and careers is to make them aware of the wide range of careers available to them after graduating with a STEM degree, or of the subjects they need to study to enable them to pursue STEM at higher education. This underscores the importance of good careers advice in helping children to determine their futures, independent of their gender.“There is the political and commercial will to promote STEM, both academically and as a career for women,” explains Mr Williams.“But there remains a stark divide, with only 9 per cent of females going on to study them at degree level, compared to nearly 30 per cent of males. Why? In short, there is a lack of knowledge about the opportunities out there because careers advice is ceded too often to teachers whose primary sphere of experience is teaching, and unless that thing is science, more often than not it simply does not feature on their radar.”In Mr Williams’ book – a ‘how to’ academic and careers guide – he argues that schools are not giving students the best advice about their futures. “There is, I believe, such a gross absence of quality academic and careers advice in schools and colleges nationwide that there are too few people equipped to challenge the stereotypes that have been allowed to stand for too long.“Careers advice has not changed much since I was at school – arguably, it is worse. It used to be that if you went to university that was the magic bullet that would enable you to walk into any kind of career of your choice, but it is just not like that anymore. The environment has changed massively since then, but the careers advice has remained pretty much the same.”

Other pathways into STEM careers

“Schools are naturally geared towards getting students into university. Every decision a child makes from the age of 15/16 onwards is geared towards that goal. Instead, if children think about what goals they have for the future – not just academic ones – and work logically backwards then the academic choices will support a goal.”Working backwards from the goal may indicate other preferable pathways such as the IB Career Related Programme (CP), apprenticeships or, at university, a degree apprenticeshipAround the world, apprenticeships have long been recognised as a crucial way to develop the skills wanted by employers, and the UK government is aiming to increase the number of apprenticeships to three million starts in England by 2020.“No one understands the skills employers need better than the employers themselves,” said secretary of state for education, Nicky Morgan.“That is why we are placing them in the driving seat. They are designing apprenticeships so they focus on exactly the skills, knowledge and behaviours required of the workforce of the future.”The IB CP has also developed in recognition of the importance of practical experience in addition to academic study. It offers students aged 16-19 an integrated package of academic study and practical hands-on experience, such as two academic subjects from the IB Diploma Programme (DP), alongside one career-related study option (such as a BTEC, for example). It helps students to gain the experience and skills necessary to focus on prospective careers or further education. According to one student, “A lot of 16-year-olds do not know what they want to do for the rest of their lives, so by studying the CP I felt like my choices were much more diverse and I was not limiting my options about whether to go to university or go into the world of work. My opportunities were kept open; there were no limitations.”
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Employment rates for STEM graduates are high

Two reports: the Shadbolt and Wakeham reviews, commissioned by the British government into the job prospects of STEM graduates, recommended that a stronger focus on employment outcomes and more real-life work experience were vital components in the employability of graduates. This goes some way towards explaining the government’s focus on practical experience through schemes like apprenticeships.However, globally, the OECD, PISA research showed that employment rates for STEM graduates were high on average across all of the 72 OECD countries, but male graduates have higher employment rates than female graduates and the gap is particularly marked in science-related jobs, where men form the majority.The findings show how hard it is for women to pursue a career in a science-related field, and that there is still a lot to be done to fill the STEM skills gap and to encourage more women into STEM careers. And so how can we begin to move towards solving the problem?“At home – to start with – every parent should ensure their children grow up believing that no avenue is closed to them regardless of gender,” says Mr Williams.“The rest is down to being proactive, for example searching on Google [Google have 46 per cent of women on their senior management team] as the information is out there for anyone who wants it. That is what I will be telling my daughter.”Edd Williams' book, Is Your School Lying To You? published by Ortus Press, is out on 31 January 2018.
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