A Thought Piece by Naa Adei Kotey 9 October 2018

Earlier this year Naa Adei Kotey, a student at Heartlands Academy, had her essay presented at the Royal Society, the world’s oldest independent scientific academy. Having completed her studies at Heartlands, Naa Adei is now studying Cybernetics Engineering at the University of Greenwich.

In her first thought piece for us, Naa Adei reflects on what it’s like to be a female student of STEM and explains why getting more women into these subjects is so important.

Most people have a gritty backstory to their journey into their chosen disciplines, even more so for STEM careers. Funnily enough, I don’t. Whilst my father studied computer science and engineering at degree level, the majority of my familial career influences are medicine and law oriented. With this background, my decision to study robotics may seem entirely random.

As a child, I was obsessed with knowing everything, especially the fundamentals of anything mechanical. The unknown fascinated me. Whenever I encountered a new idea or system, I made it my mission to figure out every aspect of its operation. Planes, trains, tides, the solar system; no matter the object, I became fixated on finding out what made it tick. I needed to know everything about it. As unhealthily obsessive as that sounds, it led me to begin looking at problem solving. Eventually my problems became more complex and my approach to solving them became obsolete. At that point I decided to look more deeply in to engineering and computer science and was introduced to a revolutionary way of thinking.

We simply do not have enough people who understand these principles to a high enough degree of accuracy to allow our progress.

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects are imperative to the preservation and adaptation of society. The technological advancements of recent years have resulted in us living in a hyper-connected world. Anything and everything we think or say can be uploaded and shared in a matter of seconds. However, these same technological advancements have led us to problems that did not exist a few decades ago. Consequently, we find ourselves having to pursue new disciplines and innovations. Therein lies the problem. We simply do not have enough people who understand these principles to a high enough degree of accuracy to allow our progress.

STEM could lead us to sustainable renewable energy, advanced robotics, a better understanding of our universe and so much more. The applications are quite literally endless. We need to promote the training of the next generation of scientists and engineers and lose the stigma of women and girls entering the field. Women make up 49.558% of the population yet hold only 24% of STEM jobs. We are consistently discouraged from pursuing such subjects because it doesn’t fit with the stereotypical image of femininity. Unconsciously, we push boys towards these subjects and rarely support girls who take an interest in these specialisms. As a direct result of this, many girls now lack the confidence to actively seek STEM courses.

The slow realisation that I had entered a heavily male dominated stream of education overwhelmed me.

The vast majority, if not all, of my classes are filled with boys. With regards to my placement at Aston University, my research partner, who was looking at a similar project, and I were the only girls in a department full of around 30+ men. There was only one female student on the computer science course class that we were working with.

It didn’t strike me as odd at first. Then I really began to think about it. I would say around 95+% of the students around me were male. I looked at the year above, all boys. Then the year below, surprise, surprise – all boys. The slow realisation that I had entered a heavily male dominated stream of education overwhelmed me. It was discouraging, to say the least, to see so few women actually pursuing the course.

We’re far more likely to reach solutions when we put a new perspective on our existing problems.

A lack of women in STEM encourages a lack of a particular kind of thinking. While it may seem childish to say that men and women are polar opposites, to an extent, it’s true. We think and learn in completely different, yet equally valid ways. Let me be clear, I’m not implying that one is superior to the other; only that many hands make light work. We’re far more likely to reach solutions when we put a new perspective on our existing problems. More often than not, a new perspective is a different person. What might be incredibly difficult for person A might be blindingly obvious to person B; a classic example of ‘‘Sideways thinking’’, as one of my teachers would put it.

Ultimately, we’ve created a ridiculous gender gap in this field and are desperately trying to fix it by overcompensation for the lack of women. But how exactly do we go about fixing it?

Step 1

Remove the stigma and stop placing genders on subjects and pathways. Boys can like textiles or catering or any other ‘girly’ subject just as much as or more than girls. In the same way, girls can like coding, engineering and mathematics just as much as or more than boys.

Step 2

Be consistent and actively support girls who show an interest in STEM. Leaving them to their own devices will not guarantee that they all pursue their passion. Be the one to nurture their growth.

Realistically, we should begin to introduce the concepts of STEM to all children from a young age. At the rate the world is developing, these highly transferable skills are crucial for any field you enter. What we’ve yet to consider is the fact that a lot of people would have gone into or developed an interest in STEM, had they been properly educated about it. It’s ludicrous that we automatically expect people to seek these subjects when hardly any of them have existing knowledge. You can’t like what you don’t know.

Step 3

Make it a fair playground for all parties involved. Work towards eliminating the wage gap, particularly in STEM. Logic dictates that if we’re all doing the same job, we should all be making the same amount of money. Female does not in any way equal less valuable.

The progress that has been made in the struggle for gender equality is exceptional but the war is far from over. Whilst things have improved, we’re a far cry away from where we should be – total equality. In reality, we shouldn’t have a gender gap in any position. Let’s work towards building a better future.

Keep an eye out for more thought pieces from Naa Adei Kotey, our newest student correspondent!