“So, do you consider yourself a role model?” That was the question posed to a young female engineer at a recent event hosted by my company.
The engineer was in the company of many of the country’s leading industrialists and manufacturers; she could be excused for being modest. In fact, she sat up straight and declared authoritatively that she was happy to be called that – with a very clear caveat: “But it’s not because I’m a woman in engineering. If someone was to call me a role model, I hope it was simply because I’m doing a job that matters, regardless of my gender.”
Her words and sentiments were profound. I was so impressed by her commitment to her profession. But I was not surprised to hear that she had encountered some resistance from her parents when she told them she wanted to go into engineering. Her father was concerned that she was entering a male-dominated industry.
I certainly sympathise – as a parent myself, the most important thing to me is the safety and security of my children. Thankfully, her father’s viewpoint did not deter her career choices, but I am sure many young people have been dissuaded from certain careers or technical routes by their parents. After all, our parents are our biggest influences.
Research from WorldSkills UK and the Careers & Enterprise Company, whose board of directors I recently joined, shows that gendered stereotypes remain embedded in the career choices young women make. Crucially, the research also found that young people said that their mothers and fathers remain the single biggest influences for life decisions, particularly at a young age.
But what we do not need to accept is a situation where a lack of knowledge or experience from parents prohibits opportunities for young people. Investing in parents can be part of the solution to smashing gender stereotyping and increasing female participation in STEM careers.
A generational gap
The crux of this issue comes down to education and experience. Parents nowadays are not from the digital technology age. In some parents I have met, there is almost a fear, a reluctance, to truly understand the capabilities of technology and the opportunities it holds.
Many have come from a generation where home economics was the domain for girls, while the boys had the run of design and technology. Particularly in working-class families, parents want security for their children in professions they know.
And this is what it comes down to: education. If we invest in widening the knowledge of the generations who are raising our young people, we might see more diversified industries and skilled professions.
Parents as STEM ambassadors
This is not a radical notion that is well beyond our means. The Google Digital Garage is just one example of how we can make technology more accessible for older generations, removing the fear around it.
Star Academies, where I am a trustee, has seen incredible benefits having brought parents closer to the schools. One of the keys to our success has been enabling our parent community to be active stakeholders in school life. We actively invest in parent engagement in an attempt to put our children and their parents on the same wavelength.
Parents must see the benefits of scientific, technological and technical careers in action and experience them themselves. It was only after the father of the young engineer I mentioned earlier actually saw his daughter in action on her university engineering course that he reconciled with her decision.
'Busting STEM myths and prejudices'
Initiatives such as the National Cyber Security Centre’s CyberFirst, with whom we at Star Academies are partnered, are game-changing. Its programmes, such as Adventurers, invite parents and guardians to observe the workshops. It has a focus on technology and hands-on, exploratory learning. Careers days where parents are part of the experience should be the standard in order to bust the myths and prejudices of STEM.
This is also the goal of the IN4.0 School, where we nurture technology graduates from working-class communities to be leaders in industry and education. But we can only diversify this talent if the people most influential to our children are informed about STEM career options as well. A lot of money and funding has gone into closing the gender gap in STEM. But we must understand that it’s not just about the investment, but about investing in the right people and the key influencers around them.
Mo Isap is founding director and vice chair of Star Academies, founder and CEO of tech company IN4.0 and board member for the Careers & Enterprise Company