Teenage girls and parents must talk about science
Diversity & Inclusion Businesses boom when they have a high female presence on the boards. So what can we do to persuade women to take a greater interest in the STEM areas in the future?
Dr Sharon James is Senior Vice President of R&D at RB and is working with the WISE campaign to encourage more girls and women into STEM careers. Initially studying medical biochemistry at Royal Holloway and taking a PhD in Neurobiology at UCL, Sharon went on to attend Henley Business School and is very clear on the importance of gender diversity in a business.
“The bottom line, after looking at reports into companies that have at least one woman on the board over the last 10 years, is that the more women on the board, the higher the return on growth,” she says. “Gender diversity translates into higher returns. And in a company like RB, this makes particular sense. Women make 85 per cent of retail decisions and when it comes to over the counter medicines, that figure rises to 93 per cent. A man may have a common cold or man flu, but it is women who are buying the products to relieve their symptoms. There have also been some fantastic female inventors over the years, for example windscreen wipers, coffee filters and disposable nappies were all invented by a woman.”
Dr James believes women encounter particular barriers that can be self-imposed. “Women do behave differently from men,” she says. “We often lack confidence and tend to undersell our capabilities, whereas men can tend oversell. We can also be perfectionists and many fear making mistakes in public. Personally, I’ve found that when I’ve been the only woman in otherwise all-male meetings, the differences can often be exacerbated.”
Dr James’ career path has been an interesting one. The first in her family to attend university, she says, “Aspirations were set for me. When I was very young I heard my headmaster telling my mother I was going to be a doctor. I was interested in the arts but the sciences were more difficult, and so when choosing GCSEs and A-levels I opted for the sciences as attaining them meant I had a greater sense of achievement. They were more of a challenge, but at the same time I came from a very practically oriented family and I thought they would make it easier for me to find a job.”
Certainly, Dr James’ personality was suited to the route she took: as a child she remembers playing with her brother’s Lego and Meccano sets. But she is adamant that parents have to play a role in guiding their daughters into a career in the STEM industries. “If parents want to get their children into the sciences, it’s a conversation they have to have early,” she says. “A recent report show that in the US, kindergartens spend an average of 19 minutes a day on the sciences and 90 on language and the arts. So as parents, we have to introduce more science into their lives.” She points out that when they are in years seven or eight, girls tend to enjoy science but a paucity of career information means they often don’t pursue it in later years.
“Parents have got to fill these gaps,” she says. “We have to show them the value of a career in science and make it plain that if they opt out of STEM subjects, they are opting out of certain careers in the future.”