Get wise to engineering

Science and technology will be at the cutting edge of the next century, but many people don't see a future career for themselves in these areas. How can we change their minds? By Maureen O'Connor
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A NEW, females-only bus takes to the road in Scotland this week. Launched by Vanessa Collingridge, the Channel 5 presenter, who not only happens to be female, but is also a director of a media production company, the bus will take a range of micro-electronics, pneumatics and design and control technology equipment around Scottish schools, with the specific aim of allowing girls to get their hands on it without interference from the boys.

Wise (Women into Engineering and Technology) has been promoting science- and technology-oriented careers to girls for 14 years. The aim of their latest converted vehicle classroom is to inspire 13- and 14-year-old girls to become more confident, in what is still a traditionally male-dominated area.

Most scientists, engineers and technologists are still white men. This is not a new problem, but as the Government pushes forward a new wave of modernisation for a hi-tech future, it is becoming more acute.

As Vanessa Collingridge puts it: "Harnessing the technical skills and talents of men and women is the only way to ensure the UK's cutting edge in today's competitive world. I have no doubt the bus will help girls realise how exciting technology can be."

The battle to encourage women into scientific and technical areas is far from over. In fact, the Equal Opportunities Commission is concerned that in some respects things may be going backwards. While the proportion of women going into the major scientific and technological disciplines in higher education has increased from five to 15 per cent over the 14 years of Wise's campaigning existence, the proportion of female engineering graduates going into engineering careers is only 20 per cent, compared to 35 per cent of male graduates.

And, at school, the EOC is concerned that, although girls are outperforming boys at GCSE level in science, maths and technology, at A-level and beyond, the subjects continue to be male-dominated.

Even worse, economics, geography and computer studies are also proving unpopular with girls, and, on the pilot modern apprenticeship scheme, last year 89 per cent of the places were taken by boys.

"We have to ask ourselves why, with girls doing so well up to the age of 16, they are falling down when it comes to further and higher education," said Kamlesh Bahl, who was chair of the EOC when last year's disappointing figures were published.

"The EOC is looking at what can be done within schools, and by parents and careers advisers, to discourage the traditional stereotypes of "boys'" and "girls'" subjects."

Marie Noel Barton, of the Engineering Council, which, with the co-operation of major employers, organises the Wise project, bemoans the fact that, in spite of some good progress, the stereotypical engineer is still male. "Some girls still do not realise that modern engineering is not a dirty job. It is not until the connection with computers, food technology and music technology is made that they realise how far technological careers have changed.

Wise won't give up, she says, until the number of girls going into higher education has evened up. And the campaign now has a second objective: to make sure that every woman, whatever her career plans, is computer- and technology-literate.

"We have to start early, in the primary schools, working with teachers and parents, before the stereotypes have become ingrained," says Marie Noel Barton.

But stereotypes can come in different colours as well as different shapes. Science and engineering are high priorities for the Birmingham Partnership for Change, which has just launched a campaign in the city to encourage young black people to move into areas where they are currently under-represented.

The partnership is a high-powered one, which includes the local education authority, the Birmingham Economic Development Department, the Council of Black Led Churches, and the city's Education Business Partnership. Two years ago, the partnership launched a small pilot project, working with third-year pupils at Handsworth Wood Girls' School. The aim was to raise the pupils' awareness of science, engineering and technology skills and careers.

This year, a new campaign, called simply Respect, will provide materials for all Birmingham secondary schools, with particular emphasis being placed on a core group of schools with the highest Afro-Caribbean populations.

There are three prongs to the Respect campaign. A set of four posters features West Midlands-based black professionals, all of them with careers in science, engineering and technology, including dentistry, biochemistry, pharmacy, veterinary science and several others. Attractive role models, who might be stereotyped as sports stars or musicians, confess that, in fact, they are all involved in scientific professions.

Publicity will be backed up with a careers pack for use by schools, community organisations and colleges, and by a scheme for mentoring and role modelling in schools. It is envisaged that mentors will be asked to take part in one or two activities in each school year, which will demonstrate that Afro-Caribbeans can and do attain important jobs in science, engineering and technology.

The campaign is based on statistical evidence drawn together by the Birmingham Education Department. This shows that African and Caribbean children appear to do better in the early years than at the GCSE stage, and that at GCSE they seriously underperform in maths and science subjects compared to other ethnic groups. They are under-represented at A-level, and are likely to take on low-level vocational training at 16. African and Caribbean girls outperform boys, but still fall short of the achievements of other ethnic groups.

As the Equal Opportunities Commission pointed out in this year's Facts About Men and Women in Great Britain, too many jobs in Britain are still "labelled" for men or for women. This results in job segregation, limiting choice for the individual and the available talent for recruiters. The EOC argues that the future competitiveness of Britain depends on widening the pool, as do women's prospects of improving their earning potential, which still lags well behind that of men. And what applies to women also applies to the ethnic minorities, which are failing to find a place in many career areas.

Wise has shown, over a period of years, that well targeted campaigning can make a difference for girls. It may be that campaigns such as Respect in Birmingham will do the same for young people from ethnic minorities, who do not yet see their way to jobs in science and technology.