Get Wise to Engineering Science and Technology Will Be at the Cutting Edge of the Next Century, but Many People Don't See a Future Career for Themselves in These Areas. How Can We Change Their Minds? by Maureen O'Connor
Maureen O'Connor, The Independent (London, England)
A NEW, females-only bus takes to the road in Scotland this week. Launched by Vanessa Collingridge, the Channel 5 presenter, who not only happens to be female, but is also a director of a media production company, the bus will take a range of micro-electronics, pneumatics and design and control technology equipment around Scottish schools, with the specific aim of allowing girls to get their hands on it without interference from the boys.
Wise (Women into Engineering and Technology) has been promoting science- and technology-oriented careers to girls for 14 years. The aim of their latest converted vehicle classroom is to inspire 13- and 14-year-old girls to become more confident, in what is still a traditionally male-dominated area.
Most scientists, engineers and technologists are still white men. This is not a new problem, but as the Government pushes forward a new wave of modernisation for a hi-tech future, it is becoming more acute. As Vanessa Collingridge puts it: "Harnessing the technical skills and talents of men and women is the only way to ensure the UK's cutting edge in today's competitive world. I have no doubt the bus will help girls realise how exciting technology can be." The battle to encourage women into scientific and technical areas is far from over. In fact, the Equal Opportunities Commission is concerned that in some respects things may be going backwards. While the proportion of women going into the major scientific and technological disciplines in higher education has increased from five to 15 per cent over the 14 years of Wise's campaigning existence, the proportion of female engineering graduates going into engineering careers is only 20 per cent, compared to 35 per cent of male graduates. And, at school, the EOC is concerned that, although girls are outperforming boys at GCSE level in science, maths and technology, at A-level and beyond, the subjects continue to be male-dominated. Even worse, economics, geography and computer studies are also proving unpopular with girls, and, on the pilot modern apprenticeship scheme, last year 89 per cent of the places were taken by boys. "We have to ask ourselves why, with girls doing so well up to the age of 16, they are falling down when it comes to further and higher education," said Kamlesh Bahl, who was chair of the EOC when last year's disappointing figures were published. "The EOC is looking at what can be done within schools, and by parents and careers advisers, to discourage the traditional stereotypes of "boys'" and "girls'" subjects." Marie Noel Barton, of the Engineering Council, which, with the co- operation of major employers, organises the Wise project, bemoans the fact that, in spite of some good progress, the stereotypical engineer is still male. "Some girls still do not realise that modern engineering is not a dirty job. It is not until the connection with computers, food technology and music technology is made that they realise how far technological careers have changed. Wise won't give up, she says, until the number of girls going into higher education has evened up. And the campaign now has a second objective: to make sure that every woman, whatever her career plans, is computer- and technology-literate. "We have to start early, in the primary schools, working with teachers and parents, before the stereotypes have become ingrained," says Marie Noel Barton. …