Encouraging girls in STEM is a matter of ‘principal’

  • Karen Quinn, head teacher of Victoria College, Belfast talks to Sync NI about how the education of wider society is needed to break down the barriers between women and STEM.

    Karen is a past pupil of the school herself and has taught maths her entire career. She has taught in mixed schools as well as all-girls/all-boys schools and is passionate about mTech.Academy, which Victoria College is now involved with.

    She told us she currently sees that girls are enthusiastic about STEM and that it is so much wider than just science, technology, engineering and maths; “There’s a lot going on in school and the girls want to do it. In one of my first mTech panels, a computer programming company said that some of the best computer programmers that they see have English in their background, because they can tell a story. I really hadn’t thought about that before.”

    A common theme amongst most women Sync NI has interviewed recently is that there is a perception in which one has to have a scientific background to break into the tech world.

    Karen said: “We need to get people to understand that a tech savvy company still needs to have so many other employees. It doesn't necessarily mean you need to have a STEM-based degree. It means that you need to have good people skills, marketing backgrounds, HR backgrounds and so on. Every subject has its part to play.

    “In history pupils learn about resources and the past. In geography they can compare and contrast case studies. It's about firing the imagination, and all of that actually helps with STEM. I'm not as worried as a principal of an all-girls school about girls' engagement in STEM. My bigger worry is that we need to do more work in helping people understand that STEM actually is much wider.”

    We discussed the cultural issue facing women in STEM and deliberated whether its parents and the wider community that may need educated on the opportunities STEM careers can bring.

    Karen continued: “I think there is this traditional perception that the only good options are high-earning jobs like lawyers and medics. You need to make sure you get the work/life balance right. The wider community needs to hear from employers that, actually, you don't need to have a computing degree to go and work in this tech company, that they have all of these programmes where they'll upskill you and work with the degree you have.

    “What's important is that you do something that you're passionate about and that you enjoy, and ideally something that you're good at. If you do all of those things you'll develop skills that will allow you to go into whatever jobs you want to go into. That for me is more important. I feel it's more external pressures rather than internal school pressures pushing the “traditional” careers along.”

    Progress is already being made though, with social media having a part to play, and universities coming together with schools to bring careers fairs and taster events that involve pupils, parents and teachers. A focus in previous years may have been; if someone is particularly good at maths, they should go on to be an accountant. But, Karen commented: “We’re breaking down years and years of education.”

    She continued: “My fear at the moment - because I do see a decrease in STEM numbers - is that we narrow subjects at A-level when actually I think we should be widening. I think the competition for university, particularly at home now, is so high that they want three good grades and three subjects. We're missing even that fourth AS. So you might have had, for example, pupils aiming for degrees in medicine, would study biology, chemistry, and maths. They might have had physics as their fourth subject but we're possibly seeing less of that. Similarly, we're seeing less of three sciences and say a language, which worries me. We narrow down when actually we need to be encouraging more breadth at that stage, so that people can make more informed choices.”

    Are we victims of circumstance? As the NI economy has faced economic downturns and university fees have increased over the past decade, is the pressure getting too much for our young people? Getting a job can be more difficult anecdotally in some areas, yet the NI tech sector has a serious shortage in skills. Are students being pigeonholed by their subjects and not realising the scope of careers that could be made available to them by exploring different disciplines?

    Karen certainly seems to think so, as she commented: “We tell our young people that they need three good A-levels for university and for jobs, but in saying that we're not encouraging them to keep on a subject because they enjoy it. They should just take it because they never know where that might take them at some point. It struck me whenever the employers said that some of the best computer programmers have creative backgrounds; how are we actually in our education system encouraging that?”

    My final question to Karen was that if a young girl was considering a career in STEM but was intimidated or afraid, what advice would you give to her?

    Her answer was both honest and modest: “I'm the wrong person to advise that girl because I'm in a school. Sometimes I tell the pupils I've never worked in the real world. Where I get to advise that person is through what I do in terms of our careers programmes and who I invite in as guest speakers.

    “For example, just before Christmas, I read what I think at the time was the most widely read piece of research across the world. It was recently published by Queen’s University Belfast regarding vaping and was conducted by Dr Deirdre Gilpin. She's a past pupil from Victoria. I got in touch with her and asked her to come to speak to our girls.

    “So I advise the pupils by introducing them to people with different life experiences, and I always look for people to do that who solve problems and have had different pathways. Real life is no straight path. It was for me as I did the 11 plus, GCSEs, A-Levels then my PGCE and straight back into school, but I'm the minority. The biggest question I've asked the pupils is, go home and talk to whoever is in their house about how they got into their jobs, and most people ended up in that job, by chance or in a way they never thought they would. That’s the real world.”

    It was refreshing to hear from a school principal that wants to prioritise pupils’ personal preferences and mental health above grade levels and league table scores. It was invigorating to have an educator enlighten students to take risks and embrace the not-sostraightforward path. It is the hope then that any young person – male or female – reading this interview takes away something I feel can be summarised through a quote by Harley Davidson; “When writing the story of your life, don’t let anyone else hold the pen”.

    This article first appeared in the Women in Tech special edition of the Sync NI magazine. You can download a FREE copy here. 

    About the author

    Niamh is a Sync NI writer with a previous background of working in FinTech and financial crime. She has a special interest in sports and emerging technologies. To connect with Niamh, feel free to send her an email or connect on Twitter.

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