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A revolutionary approach to engaging under-represented groups

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People like me

Professor Averil Macdonald (Non-executive Director of WISE: The Women in Science and Engineering Campaign & Diversity Lead for SEPnet: the South East Physics Network) talks to us about ‘People Like Me’ - A revolutionary approach to engaging under-represented groups with STEM study and careers

We read everywhere that UK STEM industries have significant difficulty recruiting people with the Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics (STEM) skills they need and that the UK needs 36,000 more engineers per year than it produces(!) to satisfy industry needs as older employees retire and that this is a serious risk to UK economic growth.

We have failed!

The accepted response to these facts is that if only we can enthuse / inspire / encourage female / BME / disadvantaged young people to enter STEM fields, then the skills shortfall will disappear. Unfortunately we have spent time money and effort on this for 30 years and have made NO impact on the percentages of girls studying physics and engineering. We have failed!

In my report, STEM - ‘Not for people like me‘, I reviewed a large proportion of the recent research in this area. I set out the facts and the fiction and identify what the research really indicates we should be doing if we really want a more diverse STEM workforce.

The facts!

First of all, there are the facts – and it’s not quite what most people think: it is a myth that girls and women are not choosing STEM qualifications.

  • Girls outnumber boys in STEM qualification choices overall
  • Girls outperform boys in STEM qualifications at all levels
  • Girls are actively NOT choosing Physics post 16 based upon entirely logical analysis of the careers information they are given as they are led to believe that physics limits their options - and thus are losing the opportunity to choose engineering post 18
  • The problem is peculiar to the UK - the UK has the lowest participation of women in the STEM workforce in Europe particularly in engineering and ICT, so it’s not that women just don’t want to work in STEM areas

The reasons

I found that the reasons why under-represented groups reject STEM have been well researched:

  • Careers from STEM are not popular aspirations for students age 10 – 14, nor for their parents: pupils from age 10 start to self-identify as ‘not STEM’ so start to plan not to study STEM post-16 very early and rarely change their minds!
  • Teachers often have lower (stereotypical) expectations of under-represented groups in STEM, reinforcing their non-STEM self-identity and pushing them to plan not to study STEM post-16
  • One-off interventions in schools don’t work in changing students’ minds about studying STEM. Interventions have to be applied consistently throughout their school career but don’t work if teaching quality is poor

I also found that students from under-represented groups have different attitudes and influences from the ‘main’ group – white males. Understanding these differences can help us engage better with these groups:

  • Parents’ influence has been under-estimated.
  • Enjoying a subject isn’t enough to persuade girls to study a subject
  • Mothers are of considerable importance in shaping their daughters’ career plans
  • Girls, in addition to parental support and good careers information, need to resolve the conflict between self-identity and their perception of the STEM-identity in order to see STEM as offering careers ‘for people like me’

My Eureka moment!

I found that message focusing on what pure scientists and engineers ‘do’ are NOT sufficient to persuade the under-represented groups. Instead, by bringing together the research from the STEM community with social science research on self-identity I have been able to see why the messages so far haven’t made any progress in increasing the number of girls, in particular, in physics and engineering:

  • Initiatives that seek to ‘encourage’ girls into STEM are misplaced. The evidence is that girls are making entirely logical careers choices based on the information available
  • There should be NO implication that girls must change
  • The needs of girls and young women, including supportive employment conditions and the ability to progress while working part time, must be consistently embedded into all messaging from the STEM sector.

The really novel element is working out how to enable girls to resolve the conflict between their self-identity and their perception of the STEM-identity that prevents girls choosing physics. The social science research shows that girls are more likely to create and articulate their self-identity using adjectives while boys use verbs. While all of our STEM outreach is based on what scientists do (using verbs) girls won’t recognise themselves in the narrative and therefore perceive a conflict.

To show how to resolve this conflict I used the Science Council idea of the 10 types of scientist. My recommendations are that:

  • When we talk to young people and their parents we should describe the ‘person spec’ as well as the ‘job spec’ of the various careers in STEM
  • We should emphasise the ‘types of people’ and their aptitudes (using adjectives) that are successful in the range of STEM careers rather than only focusing on what they ‘do’ (using verbs). This would address the concern, particularly amongst girls and their mothers, that STEM careers are ‘not for people like me’

Overall we need to enable under-represented groups to resolve the conflict between self-identity and STEM-identity which will allow them to see STEM careers as ‘for people like me’.

The answer: A revolutionary approach!

I have now developed a career resource to be launched on 8th September at the British Science Festival in Bradford. Using this enables girls to create and articulate their self-identity using a selection of adjectives that describe their attributes and aptitudes. These are then mapped onto a number person types – each girls typically comes out as 3/4/5 different person types. This then allows the girls to see what job roles people like them undertake where they are happy and successful.

The powerful element of this is that we are not saying ‘you should be an engineer’ etc. The message is that it is important to see where your aptitudes and personality will enable you to fit so that you can be happy and successful in your work.

Trialing the resource with 300 girls has shown that they enjoy finding out more about themselves and lead them to ask teachers in subsequent lessons far more questions about STEM careers. Trialing with 50 adults led them to comment how effective it is in predicting their current job roles!

WISE will offer training to people who wish to deliver this report in schools – whether teachers, STEM ambassadors or WP or Outreach professionals from universities.

You can find out more about the resource here. Let us know what you think by leaving a comment below.

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