Plugging the gender gap in STEM subjects
As we mark #UKWindWeek, one of the things RenewableUK Cymru is focussing on is the potential boom in the offshore wind industry in Wales, and how it can capitalise on this.
A major challenge inherent in this is first to spark interest in the types of work which will become requisite for the kinds of work which will proliferate in future. The second part is to equip people with the skillsets to succeed. Among other things, the means ensuring that STEM skills are as strong as they can be.
In its 2017 report ‘Why not Physics?’, the Institute of Physics put it like this:
“The number of jobs requiring STEM skills is expected to rise at twice the rate of other occupations over the coming years, so unless much greater numbers of technically trained individuals enter the workforce, the impact of the skills gap will worsen.”
With this is mind, I had a look at Baseline Evidence and Research Project for Gender Equality in STEM, prepared by Arad Research for Welsh Government in July 2020. The report states that the number of women employed as STEM professionals has grown 28% between 2005/6 and 2018/9 – that’s the good news. The bad news is that this still only translates to 11,300 women in STEM professional roles in July 2020 in Wales, compared with 49,200 men. So there’s a lot to do. The wind industry is determined to play its part in addressing this.
The Offshore Sector deal target is to increase the proportion of women from a baseline of 16% to 33% by 2030, but with the ambition to reach 40%. More on this here.
So, tracking back from the world of work, how are things looking in Wales’ Education ‘pipeline’? It’s a mixed picture. According to the Welsh Examinations Database, overall number of entries by girls at A-level in STEM subjects has fallen over the decade 2008/9 – 2018/9. The decrease has not been offset by gains seen over the last three years.
On an individual subject basis, there’s some equally worrying data. In Physics there’s a consistently big discrepancy in A-level entry (roughly 80/20%) between boys and girls, even though A-level Physics entries among girls increased by 6.8% during the decade 2008/9 to 2018/9.
Girls are also under-represented in ICT and Craft, Design and Technology. A-level entries by girls for ICT in Wales have dwindled from 40% in 2012/3 to just 27% by 2018/9.
In 2018/9, in no STEM subject outside of Psychology, Biology and Chemistry do you see more than four out of 10 entries by girls.
This is all the more depressing when you see that (2018/9 figures) girls significantly outperformed boys in terms of the percentage achieving A*-C grades in Physics (five percentage points higher) in Design and Technology (15 percentage points higher) and ICT (over eight percentage points higher). Of course, this might be attributed to the smaller overall numbers of girls studying the subjects, but still, I think it scotches any lingering notion of ‘natural aptitudes’.
In the Further Education sector, the number of learning activities in STEM subjects at FE Institutions fell by over half (52%) among women between 2012/3 and 2017/8.
In the Higher Education sector, the number of women enrolling on science subject area courses increased from 26,705 in 2013/14 to 30,825 in 2017/18; an increase of 15.4 per cent. That looks good, however, outside the biological sciences and medicine, enrolments fall of a cliff when it comes to subjects such as engineering & technology and computer science where women comprise only 15% of enrolments in each of these disciplines.
These figures tell me that we have a long-term problem which requires a long-term solution. Our national planning framework – Future Wales – sets the direction of travel for many aspects of large-scale planning infrastructure for the next 20 years. The skills revolution for the energy transition needs to be commensurate with these sorts of time scales and visionary ambition so that we can affect the generational change we need to see in composition of Wales’ labour market.
Of course, we also need role models. People like Rebecca Pike who completed an MSC in Environmental Dynamics and Climate Change at Swansea University and is working for the RWE Renewables team as a Graduate Developer – something she describes as her dream job. She is also a STEM ambassador. Rebecca says:
“I am passionate about addressing climate change and hope that I will be part of the generation that will turn the tide and mitigate the impacts.
“Since joining RWE, I have thrown myself into supporting onshore wind development activities. I have been involved in successful planning applications, significant planning amendments, as well as prospecting for potential new wind farm site locations in the UK.
“I am thirsty for knowledge and keen to learn but equally keen to share my knowledge. As such, I have undertaken STEM ambassador training and attended numerous career fairs and educational workshops to inspire future generations.”
I think we can all agree that as well as a pipeline of renewable energy projects, there needs to be a pipeline of highly skilled, motivated, and enthusiastic professionals who can deliver and retain Welsh value.
Children who are starting their education journey in Wales this year will enter the labour market from around the middle of the next decade. There’s no more time to lose.