If STEM Subjects Were Seen As More Caring, Would More Women Join In?

It’s no secret that the number of women studying and working in STEM subjects is woefully low. In Scotland, it’s estimated that women make up just 25% of the sector. Recent research suggests that up to 73% of women who qualify in a STEM subject leave the sector. This results in a gender imbalance in senior roles and a huge loss of talent.

Much has been written about why the sector remains a largely male domain, with personal and societal reasons highlighted like a lack of confidence from a young age, isolation and discrimination. But what if the barriers are more deep-seated? How can a female engineer like me work to redress the imbalance?

Current research suggests that women don’t choose to study or work in STEM because it’s ‘incompatible’ with the values they see as most important to their daily lives. If psychologist Amanda Dickman from Miami University in Oxford is correct, women are seeking careers that help, serve humanity or connect with other people.

This week, I’ll be travelling to Colombia where I’ve been working with a community that lives in a shantytown perched high on a steep slope in Medellin city. Over the coming days, I’ll help to train a selected team from the community to identify early warning signs of a landslide, an event that could devastate their community and similar neighbourhoods below them on the hillside.

Colombia is a country with a serious landslide problems; the combination of the ground composition, topography, hydrology, active tectonics, occasional earthquakes and intense rainfall means that the level of hazard is high. Added to this is a vulnerable population and the rapid urban expansion. The casualties from landslides are high and growing in numbers. Over the past decade, it is estimated that there has been over 1,000 casualties from landslides in Colombia.

The area that we’ll be working in is at huge risk of landslides. Working with this community is not a one off. It’s an on-going partnership that has allowed us to get to know the local community, create partnerships and friendships, train them and seek their feedback. We’ll use all the tricks available in my civil engineering toolkit to keep this community safe. So for today’s female pupils who seek a future career that will serve humanity and connect with other people, I would like to share my personal experience about how civil engineering has provided very rewarding pathways.

As an academic, I’m no longer looking to change the fundamental mind-sets of young women about studying STEM but instead, I want to help them to appreciate how the sector might fulfil their existing dreams and aspirations. Earlier this year, we launched the Women’s Engineering Society at Heriot-Watt University and will hold an event on 23rd June to support with International Women in Engineering Day. As an institution, we’re leading by example. We’re working hard to correct our own gender imbalance. 42% of the university executive are women and we have a 50:50 balance on the university court, our internal regulatory body. As one of the members of the Athena SWAN charter, which recognises work undertaken to address gender equality, we hope to achieve a silver award by 2020.

We’re making real progress and we’re simultaneously reaching out to schools and youth groups in our global communities across our five international campuses. We want to speak to as many young women as we can. It may not be a landslide victory but we’re chipping away at our own steep hillside – one young woman at a time.

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