Welsh Government new apprenticeships fail girls

Today, the Welsh Government announced that they are helping to support 1,000 high-quality apprenticeships, providing young people and adults a ticket to a graduate-level career, many of which are within STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths). Although these new apprenticeships are an excellent opportunity for 1,000 people, and offer a great alternative route into STEM careers, the Welsh Government has failed to even consider the barriers that face girls in apprenticeships – especially in STEM.

These new opportunities, made available by the Welsh Government with the support from the European Social Fund, include employment in a wide range of disciplines within STEM industries, including associate scientist, ICT and computing and engineering, but fail to put in place initiatives to ensure good female uptake of these high-quality STEM apprenticeships. This is a disappointing mistake, as girls are consistently underrepresented in STEM apprenticeships, making up under 4% of engineering apprenticeships in Wales. Because of this well-established lack of girls in STEM apprenticeships, frameworks need to be put in place to help address this, and the Welsh Government has failed to consider this.

There are several very complex reasons why girls don’t tend to take up apprenticeships outside of the stereotypical topics such as childminding, education and beauty. These reasons include a well-ingrained ideas of apprenticeships themselves, as typically apprenticeships are associated with boys, as they are considered hands-on, which girls are taught that they are not. And although apprenticeships offer a great alternative route into STEM, especially for student who don’t consider themselves as suited for an academic environment, they sadly are often thought of as something for ‘naughty boys’. This association is obviously harmful for apprenticeships in general, but that association ultimately excludes girls.

Not only does the gender gap in apprenticeships occur through indirect means, but also through the loss of equality in careers advice. Research by the City & Guilds Group found that only 17% of girls were encouraged to take an apprenticeship in school and that boys are twice as likely to take up an apprenticeship role.

Therefore the lack of this being taken into consideration when the Welsh Government announced these new opportunities, is thoroughly disappointing, especially after I gave evidence to the National Assembly for Wales in 2014 for their STEM inquiry. One of the points raised during the inquiry being the importance of STEM apprenticeships in filling the gap and how crucial it is to ensure equal engagement of girls and boys in STEM, which is a point that I feel has been looked over in this announcement.

By working with the organisations and businesses hosting these apprenticeships, and making them conscious of the lack of girls in STEM, as well as working closely with careers advice officers, the government could have helped to increase the number of girls who would take up these high-quality apprenticeships.

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Why do I want to give up my blog?

[Disclaimer:  there are so many amazing people in science who have been fantastic, but sadly its often the negative comments that affect you most]

For a while I have been struggling with feelings of wanting to delete everything, remove my blog, take down my YouTube channel, and resign myself to a non-sciencey job that I am not passionate about. Now this isn’t some huge existential crisis, where I am crumpling under the pressures of wanting to achieve, but the reason I feel like throwing in the towel on science communication and equality in STEM is honestly due to science itself. I feel exhausted by elitist attitudes.

This may be breaking news to you, but I don’t have a PhD and I don’t have a Masters in science. I did an undergraduate degree in neuroscience and loved it, and when I graduated I was walking into a competitive world where if I wanted to do a PhD, I would probably need a Masters degree. And a Masters costs £9,000. For some people, £9,000 is nothing, and they could find that in their back pocket. For me, someone from a working-class background, that is a lot of money, and therefore postgraduate education seemed inaccessible to me, and despite my passion for science I decided that academia would not be achievable. So, I now work in writing, PR and communications – some in science and some outside of science (because I need to pay my bills).

Because the letters after my name stop at BSc, I find (or at least I feel) that other people look down on me or judge me. I feel pressure to say, ‘my background used to be in neuroscience’, because despite adoring this area of research and writing about it, I feel like by not working in research that I am not entitled to say that my area of science is neuroscience.

A stand-out moment for me that summarises all of these feelings, was after a talk I did at a university about how we can help encourage young girls into science and keep women in STEM. At the end, students and staff from the university came up to me to discuss the lecture and ask me questions. One of the university staff asked me what area of science I worked in, and I responded with my typical ‘my background used to be in neuroscience’ response, feeling compromised and embarrassed about my lack of doctorate. And she responded with ‘used to be?!’ and a facial expression that was a potent cocktail of quizzical and disgust.

This interaction has stood out to me for several reasons:

  1. It made me feel like I wasn’t good enough to be part of the scientific community.
  2. It hit a nerve, as I feel insecure about my role in science.
  3. I feel passionate about science, and about sharing science through communications as well increasing the number of women in science – but this left me feeling like I didn’t deserve to do that.

This hasn’t been the only interaction that has left me perplexed about my role and my relevance in science.

I love communicating science and I love talking about science. After resigning the idea of academic research as a potential career, I decided to follow my passion of talking about science and began working towards a career in science journalism. I will be as bold as to say that I want to be ‘the Brian Cox of brains’.

In pursuit of this, I have created a YouTube channel and have written for science magazines, but my ultimate goal is to present or produce science documentaries. In stage two of my plan to infiltrate this industry, I contacted a production company with an idea of a science documentary – and I was so pleased when they liked my idea and invited me to talk about it further. During the exciting conversation, where it was mentioned how I was a brilliant and natural presenter, and the discussion about the documentary idea was full of compliments and enthusiasm from all sides, a comment was said to me that crushed me.

“The thing is, you don’t have a PhD so no one will take you seriously as a woman.”

And as ridiculous as that statement sounds, I get what they meant. As women, we need to work harder to be believed and we are often less likely to be taken seriously as an expert. But as someone who was just about to start this career, which was an alternative to a PhD, this shattered all of my hopes.

Is science only reserved for people with PhDs? Because, from what I have experienced, a lot of scientists feel like it is.

I am (at least for now) a stubborn enough person that I won’t be giving up on sharing science, trying to increase the number of girls in science, or helping to shape policy to support women in STEM. But is it incredibly disheartening to see elitist attitudes in science, when I am trying to open science up to more people.

Have you experienced something similar? If you have and would like to share your experience with me, please get in touch on mindfulofscience@gmail.com.

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Girl Scouts will ‘be prepared’ for careers in STEM

The Girl Scouts of the USA are encouraging their scouts to ‘be prepared’ for careers in STEM, by adding 23 new badges to be earned in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. With a severe lack of girls taking on STEM subjects after compulsory education, this is a fantastic move from the Girl Scouts. The new badges can be earned through programming robots, writing code, designing model race cards and being environmentally friendly during camping trips. This initiative was put in place by the Girl Scouts CEO, Sylvia Acevedo, to improve the exposure of STEM subjects to young girls, helping them to realise their potential in the areas.

In the UK, the equivalent of the Girls Scouts are the Brownie and Girl Guide groups, who can earn badges in many areas including cooking, crafts, world cultures, safety and science.

Traditionally these girl’s groups are often associated with crafting and community activities, and it is amazing to see that they are changing to encouraging young girls to interact with science. Young girls are equally as excited about science at a young age, but simply don’t see themselves in the industry and often aren’t inspired to pursue that career. By bringing science into their everyday lives, it helps to cement their confidence in their STEM abilities and help them to see their potential in these careers.

When I was younger, I was part of the local Brownie group and left fairly quickly as I found it completely uninspiring. I was a creative and an artistic child, but really wanted to learn new things and I think I would have enjoyed learning outdoor skills like map reading – it is certainly something I wish I knew now. Back then, girls didn’t really join the Scouts, and (in my experience) Brownie groups mainly did arts, crafts and put on plays for each other, which didn’t give me any new skills or put me in new roles outside of the stereotypes for girls. So I am so pleased to hear that the Girl Scouts and Girl Guide groups are making such an effort to encourage girls to think outside of typical gender roles, and work towards earning badges in science, technology, engineering and maths.

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The ‘Little Girl in the Room’ Phenomenon

“Be a love, make me a cup of tea.”

You could be the most qualified person in the workplace, but you can guarantee that someone will assume that you are the secretary, PA, or receptionist. As a result they will talk down to you, ignore your input, and ask you to do menial tasks like photocopying and making tea. Regardless of your ranking in the room, regardless of the insight you can offer to the discussion, you will always be the little girl in the room.

Being belittled, ignored, or being treated like you are a ‘delicate little flower’ is a pretty common experience for women. They either find themselves biting their tongues in the face of this form of institutionalised sexism, or risk their faces turning blue by having to constantly reinforce their position in boardroom meetings. As a woman in STEM I can often finds myself as the only woman in the room, and particularly as a young woman, this experience is definitely all too familiar for me. I am constantly made to feel like a ‘little girl’ in the workplace. I am not appreciated for my intelligence or the insight I could lend to discussions, because I am automatically assumed to be on the lowest end of the professional ladder, or that I lack professional responsibility.

Not only are women less likely to be in the boardroom and have to battled to get our place at the table, but when we get there we are assumed to be the one taking the meeting minutes, and we are the ones less likely to be listened to.

Research shows that women are less likely to be believed than men, even when we say the exact same statements. Our perceptions of women’s authority is shaped by gender stereotypes. Women are painted as these unstable, emotional and air-headed creatures, and although you may think that you have a positive attitude towards women, we often subconsciously make assumptions about women and their ability to make good decisions – especially in realms like business.

Society would love to believe that it treats people on merit, that if you work hard and achieve well, you will earn your spot in the boardroom. But that is not the case for women. Gender stereotyping still forms a huge barrier for us to be taken seriously, and unconscious bias can stand in the way of our agency.

To draw attention to these attitudes that can often be unconscious, we need to be unafraid to stand up to them. If someone asks you to take the meeting minutes, assign the role to someone else more suitable, and if someone asks you to make them a cup of tea, remind them where the kettle is.

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Why does communicating science matter?

The world felt more than a little bit exasperated last week, when the President of the world’s largest economy announced that they would be pulling out from the Paris Climate Agreement: a convention aiming to tackle the effects of greenhouse gases. Trump says its due to ‘a reassertion of American Sovereignty’, but under the surface of that its likely due to close relationships with oil, gas and coal companies, as well as a lack of understanding for a widely supported piece of science. Because if I didn’t fully appreciate climate change’s impact on the planet, I might be inclined to not want to be part of the Paris Climate Agreement either.

There is a district lack of STEM expertise present in government, in the UK only 9% of MPs and 20% of MEPs having a background in STEM. The lack of scientific thinking in politics can be a problem, not only because the politicians may lack the insight of the industry, but they also may not fully understand scientific concepts (which is evident in the Trump/Paris Climate Agreement debacle).

And America isn’t the only country where we should be concerned with the level of scientific ignorance in parliament. In fact, I am rather concerned about some attitudes in my home country of Wales. Andrew Haigh, UKIP’s national organiser for Wales, sells a product called “Aerobic Oxygen”. It is an industrial-strength bleach product that is told to have health benefits if used when cleaning your teeth. This is a man who wants to influence policy in Wales, including science policy, but clearing believes in and/or capitalises on a lack of scientific understanding.

The influence in science is crucial, as the miss-informed cannot create well-informed policies.

Scientists already work hard on engagement and scientific outreach with young children, and in light of recent events, it raises the question to whether scientists should also be investing time in outreach focused towards politicians. Because (and I would like to egotistically quote myself here): Misinformed politicians can lead to misinformed policies, which will not only impact scientific research community itself, but also how science research moulds our modern society.

Ultimately, it is likely that endless engagement would not have stopped Trump from pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement, due to unquestionable invested interests. But it is fair to say that regular engagement with politicians about new research or outreach about scientific thinking could benefit governmental decision making. Or, for a less time-consuming and simple solution, we should encourage more STEM professionals to pursue a career in politics, to ensure that their expertise and understanding is well represented in political events.

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