A Q&A with Jenny Brown, Headteacher at St Albans High School for Girls

At St Albans High School for Girls what do you do to try and encourage more girls to take an interest in STEM and study STEM subjects?

Encouraging more girls to take an interest in STEM and study STEM subjects is absolutely part of what we are doing all the time.  Our pupils are enthused about STEM learning and endlessly curious, as they are about any learning. Students are inspired by the engagement of teaching staff – many of them female, aspirational and dynamic – acting as encouraging role models and positive reinforcement of STEM futures. A great part of the motivation for girls to study STEM subjects lies in the interest gained in the classroom – this primarily comes from excellent quality staff who engender interest through their own enthusiasm for science.

Through pupil-led initiatives we design exciting opportunities for pupil leadership in science. Pupils have the opportunity to take part in debates, mentor primary pupils, join STEM clubs and attend holiday courses on computing. The school alumni are also a vital force, connecting current pupils with university students and professionals in the STEM field.

It is also really important to break down subject silos through cross curricular scientific learning within school and beyond it. St Albans also works in the local community with maintained schools to share knowledge and break down barriers.

What advice do you have for other schools to help them encourage more girls into STEM?

It’s a bit like encouraging more girls into oxygen. A key point for schools to help encourage more girls into STEM is to acknowledge and celebrate its pervasiveness. Girls are into STEM every time they pick up a phone; instruct Alexa, or Facetime a friend. Finding the emotional hook for girls’ learning is key. To engage girls you often build a story beyond the appeal of logical problem solving and analysing data. So you might channel an adolescent girl’s appetite for communication in STEM – getting them interested in designing systems for younger pupils or students from other schools, and explaining or developing the technology behind what they would be doing or want to do anyway.

Every school has to be thoughtful in order to harness scientific potential in girls. In mixed schools, give girls the opportunity to lead. It’s crucial that female teachers are seen as role models by giving them explicit STEM leadership. There are also lots of projects and competitions for schools to enter: Salter’s festivals, RSC analyst, Olympiads, the Bebras Challenge etc. It’s important to make space for these types of opportunities beyond the curriculum. We have STEAM ambassadors pupils in year 8 who work on science projects with science ambassadors from companies over the course of a year. Co-curricular STEM is key: pupils become more adventurous in their relationship with science and it’s linked to play. It’s fun.

What are some of the roadblocks facing girls’ progression in STEM?

One of the main roadblocks facing girls’ progression in STEM is money. The government have to get on top of recruitment of STEM teachers. It’s important to sell the dream of STEM teaching to prevent possible teachers from entering the commercial sector. University students have a high level of subject expertise, so we need to take advantage of their potential.

Other roadblocks are the essentially 19th Century subject constructs in schools. Arbitrary subjects classified by Victorians remain the way in which we do most of our learning in schools. This needs to shift through creative, exciting and challenging cross-subject teaching, focusing instead on skills: problem-solving, data management; analytical experiment.

Confidence in a co-educational environment is also vital. To ensure girls progression in STEM teachers need to be clever in their manipulation of the learning environment to instil confidence in girls. Teachers often have to find a pull that is creative: this is why STEM should be STEAM. At St Albans project work allows multi-disciplinary investigation. So topics like: Water; Faces; or Spheres demand agile thinking around STEM learning. We make sure that questions breed openness and confidence too (How would you explain plastics to Henry VIII? How would you extract DNA here? Or The answer is 53, what is the question?) Students know that if they ask a question, they will not just get an answer – they are more likely to be given another question to help them elucidate their original answer.

At St Albans High School for Girls roughly 40% of girls go on to study a STEM degree.  Enthusiastic, innovative and inspirational teachers are the STEM leads in school. There’s government work to be done on the public exam process, which is unimaginative and can be a deterrent, but degree apprenticeships are also massively important as they are recognised by everyone. It is early days, but T levels also have the potential to enhance girls’ progression in STEM.

How are you educating and preparing pupils for the journey from school into a career?

In the 6th Form girls have leadership opportunities to prepare them for the journey from school into a career. We cannot underestimate the influence of confidence gained from student leadership – and the immense power of being able to perceive/view a future through connecting like minds together and inspirational modelling. The MedVet society at St Albans is one example but there are also 6th form lectures and lecture lunches to engage pupils. St Albans also offers lots of support to their pupils in higher education training so that they know what they are signing up for. Pupils have the opportunity to undertake work and lab placements in preparation for their career.

What are the opportunities of the digital world and how can this benefit girls and women’s progression in STEM?

Advances in technology and the digital world are game-changers in education. It means we can be more creative and adventurous in breaking down subject silos and age structures. St Albans use an AI platform called Bluetec for maths teaching; it is fully adaptive and recognises individuals and their learning needs. This specialised and highly individualised learning platform is exciting and may become common practice in schools.

In light of the digital world, every single girl needs to be a coder. At St Albans, girls are encouraged to attend a summer coder course and all code in school. Through this, pupils become part of the solution for the future impact of technology. We are fortunate to be educating during this digital educational revolution… Schools, universities, our entire society are redefining what we understand by science. How incredibly exciting that is.

Jenny Brown will be taking part in the Panel Discussion at the Women in STEM Conference 2019, to find out more and book on check out the website here: https://stemwomenconference.co.uk/

This Q&A summary was written by Tatiana de Berg


In Conversation with Dr Katie Perry: A Q&A with the CEO of The Daphne Jackson Trust

What are you currently working on at the Daphne Jackson Trust? Are there any projects for 2019 that you can share with us?

2019 is a conference year for the Daphne Jackson Trust, the conference takes place every two years and is on the 16-17th October in London and is free to attend. The conference represents an opportunity to bring together all the current Daphne Jackson Fellows as well as many former Fellows. Taking place over two days, it includes training for Fellows on the first day and for the first time a conference dinner for all delegates. Last time 70 fellows attended the conference. It’s at events like these that you really understand the reality of the great work of the Trust.

There are also lots of other projects coming up, including the post-fellowship survey for next year. Last year the trust launched its new website, this included a new video which truly encapsulates what the trust does.

What tips do you have for women that want to return to STEM research careers?

Never give up on your dreams and what you want to do. The Daphne Jackson Trust works with many women who have experienced a prolonged break from research. The Trust gives them the opportunity to return. If you are motivated, then there is nothing stopping you. The key is to do lots of research on what you want to do and then use an organisation, such as The Daphne Jackson Trust, to help and support you. The Daphne Jackson Trust offers lots of types of support for women who want to return to research, not only whilst doing the Fellowship but also during the application process, this includes help with confidence and mentoring.

Another tip for women that want to return to STEM research careers is to be practical. Question yourself, are you really ready? Is this the right time? Are you ready to return full time or part time? It is really important to plan and be practical about what you can expect from yourself.

What are the major challenges facing women in STEM and how can we help tackle them?

For schools and education there is a need for more inspirational role models and to take an individualised approach. Real role models, women, who are closer in age to those that they are trying to inspire, so that young women can really relate to them. Truly inspiring role models are so important.

In a work environment being a woman shouldn’t be a barrier. Equality of opportunity in the workplace is a major challenge. Determination is key, be single minded and do what you want to do. Never be afraid to report malpractice, point it out and ensure you have the same opportunities as others in the workplace. Communicate and share good practice, if something is going well then shout about it.

Companies and employers should use all the examples of best practice out there to encourage diversity and equality. It is important to bust urban myths and not perpetuate the problem. Employers can encourage their employees to become mentors. Men or women, who have been successful, should know that they can make an impact through becoming a mentor. It’s important to find people to champion each little bit of good work.

Can you tell us a bit about your inspiring fellows, what they do and how they are making a difference for women in STEM?

I absolutely love my job. All our Fellows and fellowship advisers are amazing. The Fellows cover every area of STEM research, including maths, physics, medical research and environmental research. It is a delight to work with the Fellows, they are inspiring in what they’re doing. All of them are returners who have experienced a career break, on average, of 5-8 years. They come back to research and are still juggling lots in their lives, either as carers, parents or their own health issues. It’s important for them to have the right work life balance. The Fellows also support one another, they meet at training courses and have formed geographic networks for peer to peer support. To find out more about the Fellows and their research you can see case studies on the Daphne Jackson Trust website.

Dr Katie Perry will be chairing the Women in STEM Conference 2019, to find out more and book on check out the website here: https://stemwomenconference.co.uk/

This Q&A summary was written by Tatiana de Berg

Q&A with Elizabeth Donnelly, CEO of The Women’s Engineering Society: 100 years of WES, INWED 2019 and the Top 50 Women in Engineering 2019

A summary of a Q&A with Elizabeth Donnelley in celebration of the centenary of WES and in the run up to the Women in STEM Conference 2019.

WES is celebrating its centenary this year, how are you celebrating and what are your plans for the rest of the year?

The celebrations started in January with our Change Makers event, bringing many of the Past Presidents of WES together, along with our younger Members who represent our future.

Remembering the Past, Celebrating the Present, and Transforming the Future. It was great to see all the previous inspirational women who were Presidents of WES come together.

We have three conferences planned for 2019, the first WES Centenary Conference took place in March at the RAF Museum in London and hosted Mandy Hickson an Ex-fighter pilot from the RAF and Emma Howard-Boyd, Chair of the Environment Agency. There are two more conferences planned for this year, one in Cardiff, Wales, on May 15th and one in Edinburgh, Scotland, in collaboration with INWES in October.

Further celebrations include the WES Centenary Fundraising Dinner on 21st June, WES Centenary Members’ Lunch on 23rd June and International Women in Engineering Day (INWED) on 23rd June. WES has also launched its interactive online heritage trail, thanks to the National Lottery Heritage Fund, exploring WES through its 100 year history. This is linked with ongoing wikithons across the country, aiming to add more women, especially women in engineering, to Wikipedia.

What are the major challenges facing Women In STEM currently?

The challenges faced by women in STEM are systemic. In order to encourage more STEM engagement among women we need to address the way the problem is being framed. Women are not the problem and men should be trying to work out how to support this change in perception. We do have to applaud companies that are already supporting the recruitment of women, but only 12% of engineers in the UK are women. The government is doing two things which should help change the system. Firstly, the government has urged FTSE 350 companies to have 33% of board positions filled by women by 2020. Secondly, the government is working towards narrowing the gender pay gap.

What tips do you have for girls and women that want to pursue a career in STEM?

Do it and don’t take no for an answer. If you enjoy maths and physics then take them for A level, you don’t have to have A grades to study engineering or pursue an engineering career. Find the sweet spot between what you find easy and what you enjoy and don’t let anybody hold you back. You can also find a mentor to advise you through your studies and your career. WES have a MentorSET programme through which you can find mentors who can provide support and advice. WES are hoping to fundraise and provide discounted rates for this for their members.

For International Women in Engineering Day 2019 the slogan is ‘Transforming the Future’, what do you think the future holds for women in engineering and how will WES be celebrating the day?

The future of engineering will focus on merging. It will see the merger of different types of engineering such as: mechanical engineering and electronical engineering into mechatronics. This will happen across all engineering streams. We are heading towards a future centred on driverless cars and renewables so it’s important that women are at the centre of these designs.

WES has a resource pack available on their website for INWED 2019 for everyone worldwide. WES have also launched their Top 50 Women in Engineering Awards: Current and Former Apprentices  – nominations are open now and the deadline has been extended until 23 April – you can nominate other inspirational women but women are also welcome to nominate themselves.  All women should be shouting out about themselves and their contribution to engineering.

What tips do you have for employers that want to attract more women to STEM positions?

Make women more visible in your recruitment campaigns and marketing material. This will attract more women to apply for positions. Employers should also gender decode their job descriptions, WES have a gender decoder on their website which you can use to prevent masculine-coded language and encourage more female applicants.

Employers should also stop using words such as ‘essential criteria’, women are less likely to apply than men if they think they don’t meet the essential criteria. Applications that use language such as ‘meeting more than 3 of the criteria’ are seen as more welcoming applications by women. Shortlists of applicants should always include women. It is also important for employers to make the workplace more flexible so women can return to the work place. Especially for those that have long career breaks, providing ‘returnships’ can help women get back to speed and support their return to work. Ultimately women should go for it!

Elizabeth Donnelly will be speaking at the Women in STEM Conference 2019, to find out more and book on check out the website here: https://stemwomenconference.co.uk/

This Q&A and summary was conducted and written by Tatiana de Berg