At a dinner party last week I was asked by a yummy mummy, what field should she encourage her daughter to go into and what academic choices would I advise she make? The kid is 8. Now my first instinctive reaction was that this was more than a little over the top.
The poor girl should become whatever she would like to be …. right? In line with her talents and passions …
Or maybe not.
How do you know what you are good at or passionate about if you have no knowledge or experience of it?
I have recently been invited to be a VIP Blogger at the HR Tech Conference in London in March. I tick many of the boxes: I blog, I know about HR, but in many ways I’m not technically minded. I dropped maths and science as early as I could in school. Yet, I am above average intelligence (really), generally quick to pick things up, was a strong student and the only person in a recent Executive MBA class who could explain Pythagoras’ Theorem.
So what happened? Rewind to home and school.
Back in the day science was for boys. We had no data then to tell us how we were being channelled, even unconsciously and even less idea if it mattered. I studied Social Sciences, breaking the curve for the time, because back then it wasn’t a “girly” subject, with women students being out numbered probably 5:1. At that time it was a gateway qualification for women into business and industry.
But both my brothers took straight science. They were also taught to play golf. I wasn’t.
Drought in the female talent pool
We live in an era where organisations are trying to deal with critical hard and even soft skill deficits. Companies are looking internationally for computer scientists and engineers, many of whom now come from overseas. Almost 30% of US engineers are born outside the US. Yet although 60% of European and US graduates are women, they are not selecting these subjects with only 20% of technical and engineering graduates being women. In the UK only 6%of engineering jobs are held by women.
So even today, many years later, knowing what we know now, nothing much has changed. The tech fields, still struggle to attract women, with men dominating those industries and functions, whether home-grown or imported. Even the workforces of forward thinking companies such as Google are only 30% female. Women are continuing to move into careers with a soft skill focus (pink functions) or so-called caring professions and the gap continues to widen.
There are simply too few women to attract. Organisations have missed the boat. The reality is combating stereotyping and gender balance starts while the workplace is a twinkle in a pushy mother’s eye.
I have met a few women who took science qualifications in later life, but generally in my experience, the trend has been in the other direction. 40% of women for example leave engineering reducing the talent pool even further. Egg freezing benefits fail to address the real issues and come far too late in the talent pipeline process.
So good for the pushy mother at the dinner party. Not so much pushy, as savvy and strategic.
Identifying effective opportunities to deal with these challenges is complex, involving paradigm shifts in thinking in many areas of our society. All are integrated and almost inseparable. It will inevitably involve creating effective gender balance policies to make any dent on our unconscious bias riddled culture:
- To parents: encourage sons and daughters to explore all sides of their intelligence and discourage a split into girly subjects and activities, separating them from those for boys
- To education authorities: making science compulsory to a reasonably senior level, also gender neutral and fun. In some educational systems high school graduation is impossible without maths, a science, as well as arts subjects.
- To the media and tech companies themselves: Kill the mad, reclusive, on-the – spectrum, scientist stereotype. Make science cool and sexy, not geeky. Create characters for movies, cartoons and games that show that women can be scientists and engineers, without being unfeminine. Not forgetting boys can be caring, without jeopardising their masculinity.
- To organisations: make women employees highly visible. Give them and make them mentors. Send them to schools as ambassadors and make sure they are on stage as conference speakers internally and externally especially when talking about diversity. Create return-ships for women who have taken parenting leave, so that they stay with their companies, rather than deferring having children. Someone still has to take that child to the dentist.
Of the 9 new jobs anticipated for 2030 – how many require tech skills?
I predict a good profile for the future will be a technical subject (of some yet to be created discipline, which we currently know nothing about) languages (no, not everyone will prefer to speak English) and business training.
Only time will tell if I am right!