The number of women in STEM subjects has been growing over the past few years, however only about a quarter of STEM workers are female. But why is this? One suggestion is that this begins in early childhood, when girls and boys are directed towards toys designed to fit preconceived notions about their gender. Boys’ toys are often more associated with building, fixing and logical play, well suited to a career in engineering. Whereas, girls’ toys are based around social play, performing caregiving roles, for example to a baby doll. These very different skills, learned from a young age, could have an impact on what career a child is drawn towards.
One positive however, is that more women are graduating from STEM subjects than ever before. In fact, over 200,000 women graduated from STEM fields in 2016 in comparison with just over 140,000 in 2009. To help us understand what it’s like to be a woman in science, we spoke with a physics student at Cardiff University.
What made you choose a physics degree?
“I chose physics as it’s a subject I’m good at and interested in. It also has good graduate career prospects in a variety of fields, so you can choose your career path”.
What sort of career do you hope to have?
“I think probably something in the tech industry, maybe software engineering. If not tech then possibly research within the physics field”.
What is the gender split on your course?
“Roughly 70% male, 30% female”.
Did you always want to pursue science?
“For most of my life, yes! As a child I always wanted to go into something maths-related and physics definitely fits that criteria! I did have a brief couple of years where I considered music instead, but I’m glad I stuck with physics”.
Did anyone ever encourage you away from STEM subjects because you’re a girl?
“I’m lucky enough to have had a really supportive family. Plus I went to an all-girls school, so I never had to experience the stigma of girls doing STEM subjects. Though I know some girls who went to mixed schools struggled with that.”
Were there any things in your childhood that you think may have influenced your career decision?
“I never particularly enjoyed playing with dolls, I was more interested in the toys my brother had- Lego, robots, remote controlled toys, anything that involved building things! As I got older, I loved anything that required a bit more thinking, my parents teaching me to do puzzle books is something I’ll always remember”.
What are your thoughts on how children’s toys are gendered?
“I disagree with the stereotypes around toys! It should be just as encouraged for girls to build things and play with typical ‘boys toys’, and for boys to want to play with dolls etc. Toys shouldn’t be gendered, they should be grouped by interest, if anything. If a girl wants to play with remote-controlled cars, or build lego, they shouldn’t be labelled a ‘tom-boy’, or encouraged to switch to dolls. Their interests should be nurtured as these girls could be your future scientists, engineers, or tech geniuses!”
Are there any challenges you’ve faced as a woman pursuing science?
“I currently hold the highest mark for my year in my degree which I am immensely proud of, however the reaction I received from other people when they found this out, was less than happy. I’ve been accused of flirting with male students to get answers and dating people purely for help with my coursework, the list goes on. I even once had a demonstrator mark my coding assignment, then say “who did you get to help you with this, there’s no way you could have done this by yourself”, and that comment really stuck with me. There are definitely more challenges that you face as a woman in STEM, especially one at the top”.
What advice would you give to young girls considering a career in STEM?
“Go for it with all that you’ve got! There will be people who doubt you and dismiss you based purely on your gender, but just keep working and you’ll prove them wrong. Always believe in yourself and your abilities- if STEM is what you want to do, then you can do it”.
That’s why we believe in giving all children a chance to explore science in a fun way, through our subscription boxes. We’ve had lots of lovely feedback from parents of both boys and girls, saying it has inspired their child to enjoy science. We hope these positive memories will help encourage more girls to pursue science in the future, so that STEM can become a welcoming career path for all.
Here at Letterbox Lab, we offer two subscription box options, perfect for budding young scientists and curious minds. The ‘Explore Box’ has 3-4 experiments every month, and is suitable for children aged 6+. The ‘Investigate Box’ has 6-8 experiments per month, with collectable lab equipment, suitable for ages 8+. Our kits fit perfectly through the letterbox, and come with everything needed to perform fun experiments that will fascinate the whole family. With flexible subscriptions and great prices, it couldn’t be easier to inspire young minds and begin your scientific adventure with us!