For decades the numbers of women in science and engineering professions have remained depressingly stagnant, with percentages hovering limply in the single figures. Despite significant investment in media campaigns, outreach activities, and educational programmes aimed at women- many are still scratching their head as to why nothing is changing.
Although the reasons for under-representation are complex, the solution might be incredibly simple. What if powerful institutions started to demand 50:50?
The Engineering department at UCL identified in 2014 that they had the power to dictate the gender representation of the students that attended their education programmes. They saw that they could set the rules by demanding teachers to bring girls and boys in equal numbers. In a matter of months something unprecedented happened: the number of female applicants to their engineering courses started to outstrip the male.
By demanding 50:50, UCL were able to create a step change in the representation of female students on their courses- and it happened almost overnight. This shift has been extraordinarily effective but change is never easy. Demand 50:50 has required a resilience and dedication from the team delivering the new policy.
In 1878 UCL became the first university in England to admit women on equal terms with men. Today, UCL is the only UK University to hold both a Silver Athena SWAN Award and a Race Equality Charter Bronze Award. So, I guess it is in our DNA, in our values and our founding ethos to take issues around diversity and equality very seriously and propose quite radical ideas and strategies to tackle them. Widening diversity in every sense and increasing gender equality has been a key priority for me since first joining UCL Faculty of Engineering more than two years ago.
Pre 19 engineering programmes
Engineering is about being passionate in changing the world for the better. It is and always had been about people. As engineers, this is what excites us about engineering, improving, protecting and even saving lives of others. So we created outreach activities based on cutting edge research occurring in our labs with a strong social context or environmental mission. We designed programmes that provided a real experience with memories of making things for the first time, failing and trying again and then succeeding, feeling pride or feeling part of a team, making friends while working on authentic projects to solve real-world challenge.
We wanted to take young people on a learning journey that would show them what engineers actually do while developing their problem-solving skills, knowledge and self-confidence. We wanted to ensure that girls and boys from a very early age received an equal opportunity to experience engineering so we also developed programmes for children as young as 5 years old.
Within a few days of advertising the pre-19 courses hundreds of applications reached us. We received numerous calls and emails everyday about our activities, but there was one problem, the request on the other side of the phone… “I have some lovely boys that would really enjoy your activities”… “my boys would love this”… “my son is going to study engineering and it would be a great opportunity for him”…and so on, for months, again and again.
My heart sank. It became clear that girls were not being told about the choices that are out there for them; they were not been given real choice and so they are not in the position to make informed subject and career choices. Their extraordinary potential was being limited by unconscious bias, stereotype threat and what society sees fit for them at a personal and professional level.
The 50:50 strategy
This is when the 50:50 strategy came to life. Our faculty would be insisting and ensuring 50% of girls participating across all our pre-19 engagement programmes.
50:50 is our commitment to sending a clear message to break down the stereotypical messages that have created invisible barriers and are holding back young girls, affecting their confidence, lowering their expectations of themselves and their career choices.
We advertised as widely as possible through school networks, organisations, institutions, industry partners and anyone who would care to listen. The first six months were challenging. Some people could not understand why we put in place such a strategy, they thought we were discriminating, favouring girls. “If the girls were not interested, why did we care?” “Just let the boys do engineering, they are better at it.” That is what they said. But how can you know you are good at something if you haven’t been given the opportunity to try it first?
Fairness, not discrimination
Let’s make something absolutely clear; 50:50 is about fairness. From start to finish it has been about including groups who would otherwise be excluded from engineering due to invisible social structures. We considered the diversity of young people and catered for a broad range of abilities and levels of understanding to ensure inclusiveness, equality and accessibility. We ensured good gender and racial representation of staff and students in our engagement programmes with young people. We actively encourage our students to become mentors, tutors and volunteer their time to engage with children and young people.
Getting the best young people through our programmes irrespective of gender, race or social backgrounds was never negotiable. Spaces would always go to the most deserving person, the best applicants according to knowledge, ability and selection criteria.
We never lowered our standards to meet our strategic requirements. We wouldn’t do it and we didn’t have to. Funnily enough, practically every single application we received from girls over the past couple of years ranged from very good to excellent.
Soon after adopting 50:50 something awesome happened. Schools partnering with us on programmes would email me saying that they had a record of applications or interest for our activities. The examples are endless! From a London school where more than 200 girls from that school applied for our programme, a network of schools that saw an increase in applications from 14% to 42% from girls, to partner programmes where girls’ applications were 3 times as many as boys. And I could just go on.
Requiring 50% participation of girls across all our programmes, activities and events was never just about getting a 50:50 gender balanced ratio. It was and still is about sending a clear, strong, consistent message in the classroom, at home and to society. Show all your children real choice. Show young girls and boys real choice not just in engineering, for all subjects, do not unconsciously sabotage their fascinating potential. 50:50 was and is about what type of society we want. This was not just about getting more women in engineering or STEM, it is about the female voice and female perspective being heard across all areas and fields as is the male perspective.
This is just the start
We are not under any illusion here. We have a long way to go before we meet any of the gender equality or diversity challenges in science and engineering. Recognising systemic gender bias is important, language and imagery is also crucial but sustained meaningful action and commitment to a strong consistent message in our everyday actions is what will bring change.
UCL cannot do it on our own If we keep on working in silos, even our best efforts will be piecemeal, abstract and short-lived. If we allow some of our brightest minds to be left behind because of unconscious biases that society has put in place for them it is our collective failure. We take this message very seriously and want to work in partnership across the sector to maximize our impact.
This is an open call to join us in our mission! Demand 50:50!
What do you think?
What if more powerful institutions started to demand 50:50? Do think this effective approach by UCL’s engineering department should be used more widely?
Add your views in the comments below!