Taking positive action to promote gender equality in STEM, Douglas Morrison from City of Glasgow College writes about the successful approach taken with support of their partners to increase female participation in the college’s engineering programme.

Over the last two years City of Glasgow College has demonstrated a commitment to promoting gender equality in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths) sector. As the Head of STEM Industry Academies at the College, I am often asked why we are doing this and my overriding response is that it is quite simply the right thing to do. Of course I also recognise the social and economic benefits of developing a diverse workforce but as Scotland’s largest College, I think it is important that we remain focused on providing unbiased equality of opportunity to all of our prospective students.

In March 2015 we hosted our first “Women into Engineering” open event. This three day event offered a combination of inspirational presentations and practical workshops in mechanical, electrical and electronics engineering. We initially aimed for 25 female students and due to popular demand welcomed 78 over the course of the three days. This was an important moment for the College as our anecdotal research had shown that female students were keen to pursue STEM careers but were not applying for courses. So why was this interest not transferring to enrolments in STEM related College and University programmes?

Feedback from the event ranged from students thinking they needed physics as a subject; they were concerned that engineering was male dominated and restricted.

That was consistent with almost every discussion I have with groups of school girls in the outreach work I do within my role at the College. It is clear to me our educational community has a responsibility to raise awareness of STEM opportunities and pathways at an earlier age and to remove and reduce environmental and cultural barriers to entry.

Although this responsibility is not easy to realise on a large scale, the College has been very active in promoting equality of opportunity through positive action. In September 2015 we introduced our Women into Engineering programme, a year-long mechanical engineering HNC programme aimed specifically at women. I am regularly challenged on this approach to tackling gender inequality but there are two points that help provide context and clarity:

  1. This is positive action. It is not positive discrimination. The programme has not in any way had a detrimental impact on any other group of students and is purely an addition to the curriculum offer.
  2. At no stage is anyone persuaded to take women only programmes. Every applicant has a choice to enrol on the women only programme or a specialised mainstream programme.

As our first group of women approach their exam period I am delighted to say that not only are they achieving but their collective performance has been exceptional. Feedback from our students suggests that many of them would not be at college studying engineering were it not for the women only provision. Across all of our engineering programmes we have increased female participation from 8% to 13% which is significantly above the sector average. Put simply; this approach works.

In March this year we hosted our second Women into Engineering open event. We had over 400 expressions of interest for 125 places and eventually welcomed 138 young women to the College. It was a wonderful day where the girls engaged in a range of activities including building rocket cars, programming circuit boards, visiting the College’s state of the art ship simulators and building hydraulic rigs. We were supported by four fantastic speakers including Glasgow City of Science’s very own Dr Susie Mitchell, Dr Peter Hughes, Talat Yahoob and Naziyah Mahmood. Each speaker provided an inspirational insight into the rewards and opportunities they have experienced in their STEM careers. They also offered clear examples of how they had overcome barriers and prejudices in relation to gender equality in the STEM sector.

Hosting these events is a huge amount of work and we are truly indebted to our partners at Glasgow City of Science, Energy Skills Partnership, EQUATE Scotland, British Army and Primary Engineer for their support in promoting this work.

Our work in supporting women into STEM education will continue over the next year with the HNC and NQ Programmes in Women into Engineering and Engineering Design (starting September 2016). We will also host a series of events with EQUATE Scotland aimed at promoting modern apprenticeship opportunities for women and will be supporting employer groups with free CPD sessions on unconscious bias, taking positive action and challenging prejudice. From September 2016, we will be hosting two open days per year aimed at schools and we will be working closely with Primary Engineer to support activities and sessions for school teachers.

At City of Glasgow College we are always looking for partners whose values are aligned to our own. If you are interested in our work and are in a position to help please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Douglas Morrison is Curriculum Head Industry Academies in the Faculty of Building, Engineering and Energy at City of Glasgow College.

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