Technology: still a man’s job

school students © Shutterstock/Hurst Photo

Engineers, chemists, physicists and computer scientists are still urgently needed, despite the many funding initiatives that target them. Better data and more in-depth analyses should help to reverse the trend in future. By Marcel Falk

​It’s a topic parents all talk about. Young people, children, even babies can hardly be torn away from their smartphones and tablets. They’re mad about their gadgets, and technology seems to fascinate them. Yet all the Western industrial nations have had the same problem for decades: too few children – and too few girls in particular – want to become engineers and natural scientists. Despite many initiatives in schools and outside them, the economy still lacks the necessary experts.

The problem is clearly more complicated than was thought. Educational researchers now want to obtain solid data to be able to investigate this lack in the natural sciences and the technology sector. So Peter Labudde and his team from the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland (FHNW) polled over 3,500 pupils and compared their answers with those of people who have taken up studies or a career in the natural sciences or technology. Some of the results are surprising.

The popularity of natural sciences and maths varies greatly. For example, biology is the most popular subject among high school students, with physics the least popular. Overall, no one likes maths much. The researchers have noticed that the proportion of unsatisfactory marks – and their degree of variance – is greater in maths than in other subjects. Do these bad marks dissuade young people from studying subjects such as computer science, engineering or physics?

But generating enthusiasm in certain topics can be done outside school, too. There is more encouragement for pupils to take an interest in technology at home than there is at school. The difference between girls and boys is vast – only 40% of girls feel supported in their family when it comes to their interest in technology; with boys, it’s 64%. It is interesting that this divergence between the sexes isn’t found in the natural sciences.

“New products no one needs”

When asked about their self-confidence in technological matters, the results were sobering: as expected, boys see themselves as competent, while the girls have little confidence in their technological abilities. This lack of self-confidence was even noticeable in girls who were given just as much encouragement as boys and showed the same degree of interest in technology. The researchers felt that this was a result of stubborn stereotyping: both genders still regard technology as a man’s work.

What is decisive in later career choices is the image that children and young people have of a profession. Careers in the natural sciences and in technology are in part regarded positively, as something modern and useful; but they are also seen as monotonous and lacking in creativity. Careers in engineering are also regarded as risky, and are seen as producing “new products no one needs”.

Rudolf Künzli, a former director of the School of Education at FHNW, believes that one-sided initiatives to promote only technology and the natural sciences are in fact damaging to the image of these professions. In a recent edition of the Schweiz am Sonntag, he said, “in puberty, social aspects are naturally the main focus of attention. If you belittle social topics, you can only lose out. There would be a far better chance of success if we stressed the common ground shared by the natural sciences and the humanities”.

And in fact, the field is wide open. Education researchers also think so. They have proposed a national research programme on education and promoting young talent in the natural sciences and technology; it is currently being evaluated.

Marcel Falk is head of communication at the Swiss Academy of Natural Sciences.
(From "Horizons" no. 103, December 2014)