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FRESH FRIDAYS: Women and STEM - The numbers aren’t quite adding up

by Bryony Cullen and Karolina Dirgelaite October 24, 2014

​Last Tuesday saw an epic 50 hours worth of celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) - otherwise known as Ada Lovelace Day. Beginning in the eastern most country in the world, Kiribati, and ending in American Samoa, the day aims to raise the profile of women in STEM, a worryingly small minority group in the UK at the moment. Here at FreshMinds we think it's so important to have an equal gender balance through our doors, so thought we'd delve into this issue...

First thing’s first, who exactly was Ada Lovelace?

To say that Ada Lovelace is a remarkable woman is somewhat of an understatement! She was the only legitimate child of poet Lord Byron, and it's as a result of his scandalous lifestyle that her mother pushed her in the direction of science and away from 'the evils' of her father! Ada is widely believed to have been the first computer programmer, thanks to her close friendship with the inventor Charles Babbage, a pioneer of computer science.

The inspiration behind Ada Lovelace Day is a study by psychologist Penelope Lockwood which found that women need to see female role models more than men need to see male role models. Her results showed that "outstanding women can function as inspirational examples of success, illustrating the kinds of achievements that are possible for women around them. They demonstrate that it's possible to overcome traditional gender barriers, indicating to other women that high levels of success are indeed attainable." This has shaped the purpose of Ada Lovelace Day, which encourages people to talk about their role models and women whose work they admire.

Another recent high-profile campaign is that of Mirium González Durantez, who has launched her own campaign 'Inspiring Women', with the hope of broadening the career choices of schoolgirls by introducing them to women who hold a cross-section of jobs. The initiative, which has just celebrated its first anniversary, aims to sign up 15,000 volunteers so that their message reaches 250,000 girls across the UK.

But the stats are still rather bleak...

Nearly half of the UK's mixed state schools had no girls at all studying A-Level Physics in 2011 and to add to this, even the most general of stereotypes still linger, with 70% of people around the world still associating being a scientist with being a man. The infographic below, which depicts the gender gap in A-Level STEM subjects, shows this is obviously an attitude that needs to change!

The follow-on effect of this shortage of the number of girls studying STEM based subjects is the lack of women in a number of typically male-dominated sectors. This is especially visible at the moment in the world of tech - in fact only 17% of the IT workforce is female. This is a worrying figure, not least because evidence has shown that tech companies with more women on their management teams have a 34% bigger return on investment.

What's the reason behind this lack of women in STEM?

Recent research has revealed that more often than not, young women aren't choosing careers in technology quite simply due to a lack of confidence. According to research from The Targeted Initiative on Science and Mathematics Education, girls often report lower self-confidence in their abilities in STEM subjects, despite no difference in actual abilities or attainment.

This means that we need to instil a confidence in young women if we want these numbers to increase and to do this we need established entrepreneurs to act as mentors to help promote this sector to these girls. Campaigns such as Your Life, which is being run by a group of tech entrepreneurs aims to increase the number of people studying STEM subjects by 50% over the next three years.

Women business leaders inspire other women to pursue their dreams and we're lucky that we have a growing number of women entrepreneurs in the UK, such as our Founder Caroline Plumb, an EEM Oxford graduate who set up FreshMinds straight from university with Charlie Osmond (fellow EEM graduate). There are over 1.4million self-employed women in the UK which is a number that's growing every day, women currently make up a fifth of small businesses in Britain. We have some really fantastic examples of women who have spotted a gap in the market and built extremely successful businesses as a result, such as Holly Tucker and Sophie Cornish from 'notonthehighstreet.com' or Kathryn Parsons from Decoded. So let's hope that with the help of initiatives like that of Ada Lovelace day and 'Inspiring Women' the number of these inspirational women and girls inspired by these women will continue to grow!

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