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Lab Equality: Sciences Struggle to Attract Young Women

By Guido Kleinhubbert

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Johannes Arlt/ DER SPIEGEL

Despite its best efforts, the science and technology sector is failing to attract girls, potentially undermining Germany's strength as a global export power. Now some are getting creative, launching preschool initiatives and even a new soap opera.

"What is an atom made of?" asks engineer Stefan Wilke. "Does anyone know?" 52-year-old Wilke, with gray curls and rimless glasses, kneads his hands together and gives the group gathered around him an encouraging smile.

But the 17 girls Wilke is taking on a tour of the German Electron Synchrotron -- commonly known by its acronym DESY -- in Hamburg, remain shyly quiet. "Come on, give it a go!" the engineer urges, then offers a little hint: "One of the parts that make up atoms are ele…"

"Electrons!" calls out one of the students.

"Yes!" Wilke cheers. "That's right! Electrons! Excellent work! Great!"

The whole morning at DESY has gone more or less in this vein, with the approximately 200 female school students who have come here to attend an "Action Day for Girls" showered with encouragement and attention.

First there were the tote bags full of informational material and gifts. Then business director Christian Scherf, 49, addressed the Action Day's attendees, telling them he was "incredibly glad that so many girls are interested in DESY." Next, the students were given the opportunity to talk to role models, in the form of female network administrators, the facility's radiation safety officer and other female DESY employees, who met with the girls to discuss career opportunities and ways to balance family and professional life.

Once the girls' questions were answered, they were divided into small groups. One of these went with Wilke, who explained that he would be giving them a tour that would include getting an up-close look at the particle accelerator and other research equipment. "That's something you don't get to see often," he enthused. "It'll be great."

DESY employees are making every effort on this Action Day to get female students excited about jobs in math, computer science, natural sciences and technology. One issue at stake here is gender equality. Another is Germany's strength as a seat of industry and trade.

"We Need You"

The country is growing increasingly concerned about shortages of scientists and skilled workers, and immigration alone won't be enough to successfully combat the problem in the long term. Sparking interest among more girls and women in technology-related jobs -- often referred to as the STEM fields -- will also be essential. Germany currently has a shortage of 36,000 engineers, warns the Association of German Engineers.

"We need you," DESY director Scherf appealed to the teenage girls during his welcome speech in the auditorium. "We won't manage with just the men. This is your chance!"

Such entreaties from managers, job placement officers and equal opportunity commissioners have generally seemed to fall on deaf ears. For years, Germany has conducted well over 1,000 initiatives and events aimed at wooing young women into science and technology jobs. Yet too many of them still wind up in office jobs, educational positions or working within the service industry.

The proportion of women in science and technology fields has risen considerably since the 1970s, but in the last 10 to 15 years that trend has started to stall. Only one in 10 first-year electrical engineering students since 2000 has been a woman. The proportion of women in engineering as a whole has stagnated at around 20 percent.

Things look no better in the automotive industry and other companies that provide professional training in science and technology fields. Often it's only men running the technical side of things, while women can be found in office jobs or in sales. The only woman Wilke's young visitors encounter in the first 30 minutes of their tour is a cleaning woman with a mop and bucket.

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1. optional
danm 09/24/2013
This isn't just a German problem. I think most countries have trouble making science interesting for girls. I think women are usually as good as or better than their male counterparts as students, but for some reason they are less attracted to many of the career paths. There are exceptions. There are many excellent female doctors. But you see fewer women interested in becoming engineers or architects. Maybe we should start with simple marketing efforts and finding ways to make the science and math related jobs look more appealing to girls. It would be interesting to see a gender breakout by job category and then think of ways to make these jobs more interesting to a broader range of students.
2. STEM early and often
matt mikell 09/24/2013
We have kids taking early lessons tablet computers (ages of 2-4) and yet we have challenges moving them from users to creators. I believe programming should be seen as having the same importance as a foreign language. We teach it early, we often make it mandatory, we standardize testing.
3. Learning to be a girl
japanreader 09/25/2013
In the USA there's an expression you sometimes hear mothers use when talking about their growing daughters "learning to be a girl". One part of this is having drummed into their heads that women do not need to pursue technical careers of any sort because they are women and not only can get by without any of it, they can also be very successful without any of it either. It's a very hard argument to fight against,because the way society is organized, it's clearly true. In the end it comes down to encouraging the few women who do chose a technical career and being realistic enough to accept the fact that most women are disinterested in anything technical.
4. ...
Newspeak 09/25/2013
Germany should try to treat those better who already have an education in the field and struggle to find jobs other than insecure and badly paid ones.
5. optional
funkyhalves 09/25/2013
Maybe it's just a boring subject to SOME women. No offense, but it's technical and dry.
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From DER SPIEGEL

Graphic: Percentage of women in Germany enrolling in university in mathematics and the sciences. Zoom
DER SPIEGEL

Graphic: Percentage of women in Germany enrolling in university in mathematics and the sciences.


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