Encouraging young cis-women, and those who identify as women, into STEM subjects would not only help to close the gender pay gap but also boost the UK economy. We find out how education can support the next generation.
While several studies have shown that around a third of all UK entrepreneurs are women — a marked increase in recent years and a trend that’s been furthered by the pandemic causing many women to reassess their careers — girls continue to face gendered barriers from their early school life onwards, and these barriers shape their choices for years to come.
It remains the case that in the UK, women are much less likely to start a business than men, which is clearly detrimental to the health of the economy. According to The Alison Rose Review of Female Entrepreneurship of 2019, if women started and scaled businesses at the same rate as men, they could add £250m to the British economy, by creating jobs and driving growth. So what can be done to help foster the next generation of female entrepreneurs?
Why are STEM subjects so important?
In its latest report of December 2021, the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Women and Enterprise (WEAPPG), chaired by MP Craig Tracey, focused on how STEM subjects have been shown to play a significant role in honing the skills needed to become an entrepreneur. The report stresses young girls are much less likely to express an interest in becoming a scientist or an engineer than boys, and this translates into them taking fewer STEM subjects at A-level or university. Craig explains: “We’re not taking advantage of our education system to give children not just the skills to become entrepreneurs, but also the understanding that this is actually a career path open to them.”
The need for careers advice and applied education
The Gatsby Charitable Foundation — set up by politician, businessman and philanthropist David Sainsbury to strengthen the UK’s science and engineering skills — includes eight benchmarks for good careers guidance as part of its strategy. One benchmark states: ‘A school’s careers programme should embed equality and diversity considerations throughout […] and actively seek to challenge stereotypical thinking.”
The WEAPPG report also calls for the government to review the role of applied education in schools and calls for Women’s Business Centres (modelled on those in the US) to be set up on a regional basis to support female business leaders around the UK. It also stresses the need for greater private sector involvement, in the form of more entrepreneurs sharing their experiences with pupils and an increase in mentoring by existing female leaders, so girls can see the vast range of opportunities.
“The sooner girls get those opportunities the better for their long-term prospects,” says Erika Watson, director of Prowess — a social enterprise offering women-friendly business support. “And the confident women they’ll become will go on to inspire the next generation, so proper enterprise has a multiplier effect.”
Join female-led mentor groups
Ways in which schools can achieve this include encouraging girls to sign up to Modern Muse, a website that connects them with successful female role models in an array of job. These Muses share career stories, advice, and information about companies they’ve worked for.
There’s also Tech We Can, a programme of free learning materials for use by teachers or parents to inspire girls (or boys) about a future career in technology. Meanwhile, Girls Who Code Clubs offer free programmes to excite girls aged 11-18 about computer science, while the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s lesson plans are designed to challenge preconceptions about who does what job.