How children’s industries can help promote STEM amongst girls

According to a survey by E.ON, maths is the favourite subject for children (boys and girls) aged eight to 15 and computer/ICT and science are both also in the top five? Yet, in 2015 only 14.4 per cent of those working in occupations classed as STEM (including health occupations) were women.

It is clear that girls are turning away from STEM subjects as they get older and, in a country with a significant skills gap for STEM professions, this is a real problem. With government policy aimed at closing this skills gap, the toy, app and EdTech industries are well placed to be part of the solution.

An analysis of the key issues and ways in which the industry can help is provided below:

The Perception that STEM is for boys

Sadly, even today, the impression children are getting is that STEM subjects are not for girls. Research by Accenture showed that half of 12 year-old girls perceive STEM subjects to be more suited to boys. While there are some ‘nature’ based differences between your average boy and girl, in this case, nurture has a lot to answer for.

  • Gender neutral toys/app:

    Although the truth seems to be that gender-specific toys sell well, I would strongly encourage the industry to create gender neutral toys and apps wherever possible. There are ways to make products appeal to boys, girls and parents without resorting to pink and blue – do your research and make a great product that works for all children, particularly STEM related toys.

  • Offer a girly alternative:

    if you really can’t bring yourself to create something gender neutral, why not consider including a girl-focused alternative (without reinforcing the stereotypes in the process). For example, make something visually appealing to girls and cast the female characters in traditionally male roles – female fireman, builder, scientist etc. If you research this with children and parents during development, it’s absolutely possible to make this very successful.

STEM requires typically ‘boy’ strengths

Many people still believe boys brains are better suited to STEM subjects and their interests more suited to STEM careers. But an easy counter argument is how creative STEM subjects are – since creativity is an accepted domain for girls. This is increasingly obvious with modern technology where programming skills can be used for the most creative purposes.

  • Add creativity into STEM toys/apps:

    Look for opportunities to get involved in the Maker Movement and to produce toys and apps that obviously encourage creativity as well as technical skills.

Misconceptions among parents

Perceptions about STEM subjects and careers often come from parents who have limited knowledge of STEM themselves. There is a huge opportunity to help raise awareness with parents through the toys and apps children play with.

  • Provide information parents will see via toys/apps:

    Why not consider, as part of your marketing and wider support information, ways to make the tech seem more accessible and understandable to parents, and communicate more what children can do both with the toy or app itself and if appropriate, how this supports them later in life.

Maths and science are too hard or too boring

I accept that not everyone will love maths and science but an uninspiring introduction to the subjects is a surefire way to lose interest for life. Even the most brilliant teachers can find it hard to make a subject fun for every member of the classroom. Many children, girls and boys, who could have been both skilled in and fascinated by, STEM subjects fail to really engage with them.

  • Make it fun:

    it is our job to come up with better ways to make learning fun. Our research shows when a child is struggling at maths, for example, a parent often looks around for a good app that might make a difference. The tricky thing is to balance the fun and education to ensure the child remains motivated. Thorough play testing during development will ensure you get the balance right.

It really does feel like the tide is turning when it comes to girls getting into STEM. For example, data from WISE shows that the number of girls taking computing more than doubled between 2014 and 2015. However, there is a really long way to go and there is no doubt that toy, app and EdTech industries can make a real difference.

Photo Credits: M, Using iPad by Henry Bloomfield licensed under CC BY 2.0

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