Girls get galvanised at STEM conference and told “you can do what you want!”
Coinciding with International Day of the Girl, on Wednesday 11 October, St Mary’s School, Cambridge hosted its fifth Girl Power conference for students in Year 11 to the Upper Sixth, from 16 Girls’ Schools Association (GSA) East Region schools and local state schools.
In partnership with the Cambridge Academy for Science and Technology, where the event was held, the theme for 2017 was STEM solutions towards a sustainable world. The keynote was delivered by Dame Barbara Stocking, President of Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge, DBE, titled, ‘Can science solve the world’s problems?’.
Dame Barbara spoke of her background in various aspects of science, from management roles in the NHS to working as CEO of Oxfam GB. She shared examples of the many ways in which her STEM-based education enabled her to “save the world” in these different roles, from supporting teams in West Africa in the fight against river blindness (which she emphasised is “one of the most successful medical achievements in modern times”), to her role at Oxfam, keeping enthusiastic campaigners in check and challenging evidence. She explained that “science helps to make sure you get it right”. Dame Barbara also highlighted that girls should find out what they really love, stating: “when you think ‘are they really paying me to do this?’ you know you’ve found the right job for you!”.
The rest of the day centred around empowering young women to consider STEM subjects and not to be put off by any stereotypes that they may encounter. Speakers included marine ecologists and engineers, astronomers and programmers, entrepreneurs and environmental sustainability consultants, each telling their own story about being a woman in science.
Dr Lisa H Butler, Director of Clinical Development at MedImmune, spoke of the challenges she has faced in her career. She decided to set up her own business after having children, in order to work more flexibly and to carry on her research into potentially life-saving drugs. Having herself been discouraged – being told that she couldn’t run clinical trials part time – she encouraged the girls, saying: “you can; you can do what you want!”. Butler explained “women end up constrained, but we don’t have to be. We are only limited by those constraints we impose on ourselves. If you have an interest, motivation, or a passion; follow it.’’
The conference also provided the platform for Katie Hannaford, Software Engineer at AVEVA, to explain her pathway to becoming a programmer. She explained that when she was choosing her GCSE subjects she wasn’t aware of any stereotypes that might suggest some subjects were more suited to boys and others to girls. She said: “I’ve become more aware of gender stereotypes, however, and I’ve made a real conscious choice to ignore them when making decisions about my future.”
Headmistress of St Mary’s School, Cambridge and GSA President for 2017, Ms Charlotte Avery, commented: “The objective of the conference is to galvanise girls to think boldly and creatively about future options in STEM. We know that there is a huge shortage of engineers and science-related professionals in the UK and we also know that young women are brilliantly flexible and creative, and are ethical thinkers. These women would be absolutely perfectly placed to take on the global challenges, as set out in the UN’s sustainable development goals, about which our school is passionate and which we face across the world.”
Ms Sian Foreman, Headteacher at Cambridge Academy for Science and Technology, a University Technical College, said: “Cambridge Academy for Science and Technology has been set up to provide engaging, practical experiences for students through our state-of-the-art facilities combined with high academic rigour at every stage. This need for a practical approach is endorsed in the ‘Tough Choices’ report from data put together by King’s College London and University College London, which states one of the key criteria for young girls taking up career paths in Science and Technology is ensuring their interest is captured and sustained at an early age, so that they gain the qualifications that are being called for by employers. We were delighted, therefore, to welcome St Mary’s School, Cambridge to host such a fantastic event, and this year in celebration of International Day of the Girl.”