Updated: Mar 11, 2021
When I was pregnant with my first daughter, I was determined she wouldn't become obsessed with pink or princesses.
Now five years on, with two daughters, I've finally conceded defeat.
However one thing I've realised is that stopping my daughters from liking a colour or a type of fiction isn't what I should be focusing on to increase equality.
I want my daughters to dress as princesses if they want to, while they also know they are strong, brave, smart and can be anything they want to be (except possibly a princess, ironically).
In particular, I want to encourage them to take an interest in the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths). But why is STEM so important for girls and what can we do to help?
What's the current picture for girls in STEM?
The charts below from STEM Women show the breakdown of STEM students in higher education in the UK.
It's not a pretty picture. Girls are severely underrepresented in these fields from age 18.
Why does it matter?
There are two main reasons why this underrepresentation matters:
Jobs of the future, and particularly higher paid jobs, will increasingly sit within these STEM fields.
From 2017-2019 jobs in the STEM sector had increased by more than 6 times that of the total rise in UK employment.
If we want to open opportunities for success for our daughters and reduce the gender pay gap, it's more likely these fields will be the places to look.
Developments within the STEM fields have some of the greatest impact on our lives.
Have you ever felt cold in an office? Well it turns out standard office temperatures were calculated based on men's resting metabolic rates and are estimated to be on average five degrees too cold for women.
Even crash test dummies were for a long time based only on men, meaning women's safety was even put at risk by this male dominated environment.
How can we expect new technological and scientific solutions to meet women's needs if we aren't there helping develop them?
So, what can we do?
As a mother and a teacher I've seen firsthand how girls are at no intellectual disadvantage in the STEM subjects, but as they grow older, the subjects seem to interest them less.
Research has shown that this tailing off of interest can be caused by peer pressure, a lack of role models, a lack of support from parents and/or teachers and a general misperception of what STEM careers look like.
Here's four suggestions to keep STEM on girls' radar:
1. Make it hands-on
Hands-on projects have been proven to retain girls' interest in STEM in the long term.
Giving a purpose and adding creativity to a project is a sure-fire way to get girls interested. I still remember sitting with my A level maths teacher and asking, "but why do I need to know that?"
2. Be a role model
Girls who are encouraged by their parents are twice as likely to stay in STEM. Additionally, in some areas like computer science, dads can have a greater influence on their daughters than mums.
Don't tell your daughter you hate maths, even if you do! Encourage curiosity and interest in the world around them and build their confidence that they can succeed in STEM.
You could try to find other female role models in STEM too - people you know, teachers etc. It's important for children to see that loving science or maths doesn't mean you can't also love princess dresses. You can wear high heels and cure cancer. You can wear pink and launch a space shuttle.
You can wear high heels and cure cancer.
3. Encourage risk and imperfection
I've seen this myself in the classroom: girls like to get things right. As a society we encourage boys to take risks, but girls less so.
To succeed in the STEM fields you have to recognise failure as part of the process. If girls aren't able to accept failure and imperfection they won't stick with STEM learning.
As adults we can encourage girls to try new things, even if they think they might not be good at them. We can show them that it's ok to find things hard and not get everything right at first. Developing this resilience and growth mindset will serve children well, whatever field they decide to pursue.
4. Celebrate women in STEM
Many of the notable people in STEM that children learn about are men. That's mostly because through history more men have gone into these fields.
However there are countless examples of inspirational women in STEM too. Buy a book, put up a poster and talk about some of these women and what they achieved.
This book is a great way for children to learn about 50 inspirational women in STEM.
Whatever you do, whether you're a teacher, a parent of daughters or a parent of sons, get involved in STEM and make it fun. The more participation in STEM we have by the children of today, the more hope we can have for the future of this planet.