STEM doesn’t need a ‘girly’ image to attract females but its image does need to change

Every October, individuals, groups and organisations across the world celebrate women in science, technology and engineering by remembering Ada Lovelace, who is acknowledged as a pioneer of computer programming.

As well as reminding or introducing us to women in history and the present who have or are making major contributions to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), the week is also about encouraging more girls and women to choose to study and work in STEM areas.

From an economic perspective, this drive for female recruits is neither altruistic nor based on an equalities agenda. The UK needs an additional 87,000 graduate-level engineers each year between now and 2020, and there are predicted to be 11,000 IT job opportunities each year. Yet women represent only 7 per cent of the professional engineering workforce according to the Institute of Engineering and Technology and just 17 per cent of the IT workforce.

Filling these job vacancies won’t be possible without persuading tens of thousands of people, including women to join these industries. But, there’s a problem. Despite significant efforts in recent years, there has been very little improvement in the numbers of women choosing STEM as a career. Indeed, the percentage of women in IT is reducing and is lower than it was twenty years ago!

In a recent article, Guardian journalist Jess Zimmerman summed up the problem of getting women into these sectors and keeping them.

We tend to talk about the “pipeline problem” of women in science and technology as if the only difficulty is funneling girls into the pipe, at which point they can just waterslide into the pool of gainful employment. But the problem isn’t (or isn’t only) the flow of girls into the pipeline. The problem is that the pipeline is leaky. The even bigger problem is that the pipeline is plugged. Anyone who slides all the way to the end will fetch up against a blockage of lazy, retrogressive attitudes about how women should behave.

Very few disagree that this is a problem and in the past year there has been a large spike in the number of studies, reports, campaigns and government policy commitments seeking to reverse these trends.

In the 1970s, American folk singer Peggy Seeger wrote a song called I’m Gonna Be An Engineer which makes fascinating listening about the low expectations of women just a few decades ago. What strikes me most about the tone of the song is the determination to fight against all the odds – parents, husband, teachers, employers – to pursue the ambition of becoming an engineer. You can listen to Peggy singing this song here. The lyrics are included at the end of this post.

Although things have changed to some degree in the four decades since the song was written, it’s depressing to think that the concept of being an engineer is still such an alien and unattractive one for women. As a woman who started her career as an IT specialist in the mid 1980s, I’ve seen many cycles of campaigns to persuade women to choose computing and other STEM areas. Such are the odds stacked against them, most of these campaigns have been remarkably unsuccessful. In the IT sector I chose to enter, the numbers of women choosing computing science went into freefall in the mid-1980s, the decline continued through the late 1990s when it levelled off only to drop significantly again in the first decade of this century. This podcast discusses how the image of computing contributed to this decline.

Getting the image right

The remainder of this article offers some observations on the role that stereotypical images play in turning women away from choosing to study or work in STEM.


A lot of fuss was made this year when Lego launched its Research Institute set which features three female scientists. On the plus side, at least it didn’t resort to ‘girlifying’ the characters the way that they did when the company introduced the Lego Friends series where the girl characters morphed into something more akin to junior Barbie! Going large on pastel colours, these sets reinforced gender stereotypes of girls as carers and home makers, rather than creators and engineers.


What a departure from the company’s original approach when it was all about building wonderful constructions out of small plastic bricks in glorious primary colours! And what a shame because, as the advert below shows, at the outset Lego was a non-gendered toy marketed in the same way to girls and boys. Indeed, included in the “10 Characteristics for LEGO” set out in 1963 was that LEGO was ‘for girls and boys’.


Challenge negative images

In October 2014, engineering company Aerohydraulics caused a bit of a twitter storm when the cover of its 2013-14 product catalogue caught the attention of the Women’s Engineering Society and ScienceGrrls (the 2014-15 catalogue wasn’t much better!) who encouraged people to contact the company to express their discontent.


After being contacted by a number of women, the company responded within 24 hours, apologised and agreed to adopt a new approach to marketing its products! The letter from the company below demonstrates some real learning. Let’s hope the company follows through.


Should have known better – must do better!

More alarming in my opinion are those who should know better, who indeed do know better, but unintentionally portray stereotypical imagery to promote the STEM sector. The following examples are visual imagery from organisations very conscious of the absence of women in the sector. Indeed, two of the three examples are/were intended to encourage more women into science, technology and engineering!

The most recent example is the latest poster from the Women’s Engineering Society (WES). WES has done a very good job in its 95 year history to encourage women to become engineers, scientists and technologists. And, as you have just read, they were instrumental in gaining a commitment from Aerohydraulics to stop using negative images of women in its promotional material. However, its campaign to encourage girls and women into engineering based on a pink cupcake is deeply disappointing, patronising and borderline offensive.


Much worse was the video produced by the European Commission a couple of years ago to support its Science: It’s a Girl Thing initiative. More akin to a trailer for a ‘Charlie’s Angels’ film, the Commission was forced to remove it due to the overwhelmingly negative feedback it received. Did the commissioners of this video really believe that lipstick and catwalk poses would persuade young women that science was a girl’s thing? Incredible!

The final example is not an image designed to attract women into the IT sector; it was about attracting people to a major conference. However, the IT sector is desperately short of skilled people and attracting women is acknowledged in the recently published Skills Investment Plan for Scotland’s ICT and Digital Technologies Industry as a way to tackle this skills shortage.

ScotlandIS is the trade body for the digital technologies industry in Scotland, with a remit that includes raising the profile of the industry. The image of this sector is particularly unappealing to women if the falling number of women entering it is anything to go by. Unfortunately, the posters used this year to attract people to Scotland’s largest annual IT conference, ScotSoft, reinforced this image by failing to show that women might have an interest in the sector!


Let’s take gender out of science, technology and engineering

Attempts to lure girls and young women into science, technology and engineering will ultimately fail if they are dressed up in lipstick, pastel colours and high heels. Well-meaning at best, they completely miss the point.

Olivia Jones, Project Manager at the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) explained recently why we have to stop trying to ‘girlify’ engineering. Her research shows that young women don’t have an innate dislike for engineering. She claimed that when you emphasise the creative, people-based problem-solving, and environmental aspects of engineering they start to see the appeal.

We have to stop treating engineering like a hated vegetable, to be snuck in under a thick coating of sickly sauce, and talk to girls about engineering honestly and in a way that they conveys how relevant and exciting it actually is. When girls are presented with real women who are engineers they can see that engineering doesn’t need to be dressed up to be interesting and that engineers are normal men and women who they can relate to.

The image of STEM is a major, although not the only, barrier to attracting female talent. In presenting an image which would be attractive to females and males, let’s remove gender references and focus on the positive aspects of what it means to be an engineer, computing scientist, etc.

A report from the Royal Academy for Engineering this year, Thinking like an engineer: Implications for the education system, offers fresh insights into the ways engineers think. It suggests ways in which the education system might be redesigned to develop engineers more effectively. It argues that engineers make things that work or make things work better, and that they do this in quite particular ways. The report identifies six engineering habits of mind which describe the ways engineers think and act: Systems thinking; Adapting; Problem-finding; Creative problem-solving; Visualising; and Improving.

I can see some great visual imagery based on these habits of mind, can you?

I’m Gonna Be An Engineer Lyrics

When I was a little girl I wished I was a boy
I tagged along behind the gang and wore my corduroys
Everybody said I only did it to annoy
But I was gonna be an engineer

Momma told me, Can’t you be a lady
Your duty is to make me the mother of a pearl
Wait until you’re older, dear, and maybe
You’ll be glad that you’re a girl

Dainty as a Dresden statue
Gentle as a Jersey cow
Smooth as silk, gives creamy milk
Learn to coo, learn to moo
That’s what you do to be a lady now

When I went to school I learned to write and how to read
Some history, geography and home economy
And typing is a skill that every girl is sure to need
To while away the extra time until the time to breed
And then they had the nerve to say, What would you like to be
I says, I’m gonna be an engineer

No, you only need to learn to be a lady
The duty isn’t yours, for to try and run the world
An engineer could never have a baby
Remember, dear, that you’re a girl

So I become a typist and I study on the sly
Working out the day and night so I can qualify
And every time the boss come in he pinched me on the thigh
Says, I’ve never had an engineer

You owe it to the job to be a lady
It’s the duty of the staff for to give the boss a whirl
The wages that you get are crummy, maybe
But it’s all you get cos’ you’re a girl

She’s smart (for a woman)
I wonder how she got that way
You get no choice, you get no voice
Just stay mum, pretend you’re dumb
That’s how you come to be a lady today

Then Jimmy come along and we set up a conjugation
We were busy every night with loving recreation
I spent my day at work so he could get his education
And now he’s an engineer

He says, I know you’ll always be a lady
It’s the duty of my darling to love me all her life
How could an engineer look after or obey me
Remember, dear, that you’re my wife

As soon as Jimmy got a job I began again
Then, happy at my turret-lathe a year or so, and then
The morning that the twins were born, Jimmy says to them
Kids, your mother was an engineer

You owe it to the kids to be a lady
Dainty as a dish rag, faithful as a chow
Stay at home, you’ve got to mind the baby
Remember you’re a mother now

Every time I turn around there’s something else to do
It’s cook a meal or mend a sock or sweep a floor or two
I listen in to Jimmy Young, it makes me want to spew
I was gonna be an engineer

Now I really wish that I could be a lady
I could do the lovely things that a lady’s s’posed to do
I wouldn’t nearly mind if only they would pay me
And I could be a person too

What price – for a woman
You can buy her for a ring of gold
To love and obey (without any pay)
You get a cook and a nurse, for better or worse
No you don’t need a purse when a lady is sold

But now that times are harder, and my Jimmy’s got the sack
I went down to Vickers, they were glad to have me back
But I’m a third-class citizen, my wages tell me that
And I’m a first-class engineer

The boss he says, We pay you as a lady
You only got the job cos’ I can’t afford a man
With you I keep the profits high as may be
You’re just a cheaper pair of hands

You’ve got one fault, you’re a woman
You’re not worth the equal pay
A bitch or a tart, you’re nothing but heart
Shallow and vain, you got no brain
You even go down the drain like a lady today

I listened to my mother and I joined a typing pool
I listened to my lover and I put him through his school
But if I listen to the boss, I’m just a bloody fool
And an underpaid engineer

I’ve been a sucker ever since I was a baby
As a daughter, as a wife, as a mother and a dear
But I’ll fight them as a woman, not a lady
I’ll fight them as an engineer

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