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Inspiring women into STEM starts in the heart of local communities

(Image credit: Image Credit: GaudiLab / Shutterstock)

In 2018, women made up just 22 per cent of those people in core STEM occupations in the UK, and accounted for only 12 per cent of professional engineers. 

The good news? This is more than double the percentage of female professional engineers in 2013. However, there is clearly still a very long way to go to achieve gender parity in STEM industries.

I work for Johnson & Johnson; as the world’s largest and most broadly based healthcare company, this gender imbalance is something that we see every day, in every aspect of our work. It’s also why we recognise our responsibility to change the status quo; using our power to influence policy, tackle cultural stigma, and empower women around the globe to choose STEM careers.

Focus on the classroom

The challenge to inspiring women to pursue STEM careers starts early, much earlier than you might think. From a very young age, many girls are taught that society simply does not see them having a future role within the STEM industries. The majority of publicly known names in STEM are male. Women in these industries are now getting more publicity, but the overwhelming majority of examples used in the classroom and in the media are still middle aged, white, men.

A big factor in which school subjects young people choose to pursue is their belief of their ability in that subject . By the age of 15, girls are already half as likely as boys to believe they are good at STEM subjects  even though they consistently outperform boys in exams . It’s vital that society instils girls with confidence in the sciences at every age.

We also need to combat exclusionary misconceptions around STEM that arise early in life – for example, that it is all about being a “maths nerd” and that there’s no place for “arty types”. As a woman working in STEM, I’ve found it to be a really creative environment. If everyone fits a mould, you’ll lose that creativity, and a diverse workforce is key to thriving and innovating in our industry.  The beauty of having people from a range of backgrounds and with different interests is that you get a range of ideas, ways of looking at a problem and solving it!

Starting with grassroots

At Johnson & Johnson, we’re responding to this STEM challenge by going directly into our local communities to inspire young girls as early as we can. The great thing about this is that it a lot of it is led by employees themselves, with first-hand experience of both working at a healthcare company and living within these communities. It has become a core part of our culture at Johnson & Johnson, with every employee encouraged to spend time volunteering across three sectors – Community, Education and Social Enterprise. It builds community links, inspires the next generation of potential STEM professionals and it’s a great team building activity away from our desks.

Our programmes are encouraged through a little friendly competition between different Johnson & Johnson businesses in the form of our “Build Your Team” initiative.  A gentle sense of competition to see who can do the most good for their local communities is a great motivator, empowering employees to give back to causes they care about and make the most of working for an influential company.

Not to be outdone in the volunteering challenge, in 2018 our Leeds ONE campus alone completed over 50 STEM-related events and reached over 2000 young people with a group of around 50 volunteers from across different business functions.  We did this through a variety of activities from speed networking to work experience weeks; week-long engineering projects with a local primary school to getting messy with some jelly “surgery” with local Girl Guides and curating a science fair with a number of other MedTech businesses and a local college.  It was also great to host groups of young people on site to give them a flavour of what it’s like to work in the Healthcare Sciences industry.

Our ambitions at Johnson & Johnson

We have an ambitious target to spark an interest in STEM in 1,000,000 girls globally, between the ages of 5 – 18, by 2020.

This pledge is based on Johnson & Johnson’s rich history of championing women.  It wasn’t until I was working here that I learned that eight of the first 14 employees, over 130 years ago, were women.  Now, the business is striving to continue that legacy by increasing the diversity in the pool at the start of our talent pipeline. We are in a privileged position to be able to build partnerships to open new doors, create inspiring moments to honour women in STEM, be role models and mentor women through the fundamental stages of their lives; all leading to an increased representation of women in science and technical fields.

My own journey to STEM

Involving women in STEM is a cause that is very close to my heart. It may sound a bit clichéd, but I always hoped that, through my work in STEM, I could help change people’s lives. Working for Johnson & Johnson allows me to do this, not just through the products and services we develop, but also through work with our local communities and being able to have a hand in inspiring the next generation of STEM professionals. It’s impossible to put my finger on just one moment that led me to where I am now; but I’m sure that a major factor was the opportunity to discover what engineering was at a young age and how exciting it could be. 

I was lucky to have parents who supported me in pursuing whatever it was I wanted to do.  I went to a school that put a big focus on the sciences and had a thriving Design & Technology department, and, as is often the case, this was driven by a few dedicated staff who had a huge influence on me.  We had the opportunity to get involved in a lot of engineering competitions and projects but the one that stuck with me most was designing, building and racing a single seater electric car. We competed against schools from across the country at some prestigious race circuits including Goodwood, Croft and Silverstone.  This was where my passion for engineering blossomed from – and I want to be able to inspire girls across the world to have similarly formative experiences.

It’s vital that our industry peers join us in tackling the lack of diversity in our field, for the good of womenkind, our work, and our world. One girl’s catalytic moment can change a thousand lives, and igniting that spark in young girls globally will undoubtedly positively change the trajectory of health for humanity.

Emma Bowyer is Senior Bioengineer, Knee New Product Development at DePuy Synthes (Leeds) and a Women in STEM lead at its parent company Johnson & Johnson.