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Stereotypes hold back girls’ interest in STEM subjects

Stereotypes hold back girls’ interest in STEM subjectsNew research from Accenture reveals that young people in the United Kingdom and Ireland are most likely to associate a career in science and technology with “doing research” (52 percent), “working in a laboratory” (47 percent) and “wearing a white coat” (33 percent). The study found that girls are more likely to make these stereotypical associations than boys.

The survey results are published as Accenture and Stemettes prepare to host their annual “Girls in STEM” events across the United Kingdom, designed to ignite girls’ interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and expose them to the variety of STEM-based careers available. More than 2,000 girls between the ages of 11 and 13 are expected to participate in the events, which will take place in London, Manchester, Newcastle and Edinburgh.

Accenture’s survey of more than 8,500 young people, parents and teachers uncovered some of the barriers to girls pursuing STEM subjects and careers. It found that over a third of young people overall (36 percent) are put off studying STEM because they are unclear about what careers these subjects support. More than half of parents (51 percent) and 43 percent of teachers agreed that students lack understanding about career options related to STEM.

The research also found evidence of gender stereotyping and bias around STEM subjects. Almost a third (32 percent) of young people think that more boys choose STEM subjects than girls because they match “male” careers or jobs. The perception that STEM subjects are for boys only is the primary reason that teachers believe few girls take up these subjects at school. Furthermore, more than half of both parents (52 percent) and teachers (57 percent) admit to having themselves made subconscious stereotypes about girls and boys in relation to STEM, and over half (54 percent) of teachers claim to have seen girls dropping STEM subjects at school due to pressure from parents.

The survey reveals a disparity between girls’ and boys’ perceptions of STEM subjects, with girls more likely to view them as “academic” and “boring.” The findings also point to a significant dip in girls’ enjoyment of traditional STEM subjects such as mathematics and computer science as they enter secondary school. Among the 7-11 age group, 50 percent of girls describe these subjects as fun and enjoyable, but this drops to 31 percent and 36 percent, respectively, in the 11-14 age group.

“Our research reinforces how preconceived notions of what a STEM career entails may be derailing the interest of young people, especially girls,” says Paul Daugherty, chief technology & innovation officer, Accenture. “Educators, parents and business and technology leaders must find creative ways to spark and sustain a passion for STEM for girls from youth to young adulthood. We must show them that a STEM education can prepare them to join the future workforce and open doors to exciting careers in nearly all industries.”

“Girls’ engagement with STEM is clearly waning as they reach the age when they begin to consider their subject choices and future careers,” says Emma McGuigan, senior managing director for Accenture Technology in the UK & Ireland. “We have to address this by doing more to spark and retain girls’ interest in STEM at an early age, while expanding perceptions and demonstrating what a career or a person who works in STEM looks like beyond the traditional stereotypes. Inspiring more girls to pursue STEM subjects and careers will not only help us to address the skills gap in science and technology, it will also help us to create a more diverse workforce that truly represents the world we live in.”

The U.K. “Girls in STEM” events hosted by Accenture and Stemettes will feature a series of inspiring talks and interactive workshops, and will be mirrored across the globe in Accenture office locations in France, India and the United States.

“The STEM talent pool is an important source of recruitment for Accenture as we strive to attract those bright, passionate individuals who can help our clients succeed in the digital economy,” says Olly Benzecry, chairman and managing director for Accenture in the UK and Ireland. “We are committed to working with government and the education sector to boost girls’ interest in science and technology. Our Girls in STEM events showcase some of the exciting and transformative applications of STEM, with the aim of encouraging more young people to pursue the high-skilled jobs of the future.”
“These findings show the scope of work there is still to do,” says Anne-Marie Imafidon, CEO at Stemettes. “Our collaboration with fantastic companies like Accenture allows us to share the right messages to positively impact these young women across geographies. We’ll also be handling the follow-up to ensure these girls reach their potential despite wider attitudes.”

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