Responsible for Billing Projects
Valerie, could you please tell us how you got involved in promoting STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) to girls?
By education, I am an engineer, and already at University you see that there are not so many female colleagues, you feel like an exception. It didn’t bother me because I was very interested in my studies. After graduating, I began working in a completely male environment, and at that point I started to feel lonely, being the only woman in many teams. In 1996 I discovered the women engineers’ think tank at the Flemish Engineering Association (KVIV). I joined them, and it was great to have female engineers with whom to share my experiences on (for example) my male colleagues’ reactions.
This ‘Vrouw & Ingenieur’ (1) group had already been established for 20 years. They have gone to schools and produced brochures to try and motivate young female school students to study engineering, convincing them that it was a fantastic job. I did it too as a volunteer, and I probably convinced many of them, being a role model for the girls. The association also helps young professionals in their career, also helping them to understand (and teaching them how to deal with) certain reactions which men typically make, providing them with training and workshops, for example to negotiate their salary. .
What has inspired you to make efforts to support girls in choosing a STEM career? Is it rewarding?
I think it is important to improve the gender balance at work. I had my own experience, and I wanted to share it. It is a big effort, but it’s a win-win situation, because I can say that I got the best coaching from my female colleagues in the association, better than I received from my colleagues at work. Coaching from my male workmates was also important but only complementary to the coaching from the women in the association. Women dare to show that it is not always something to do with you, but it can just be the circumstances and the prejudgment of people that make a situation as it is. They build your self-confidence, not only the needed competences. You just accept more from a woman even to be told even unpleasant things.
Would you please tell us about your STEM* initiative, its main purpose and concrete actions?
I was President of this association from 2005 to 2010, and still continue as an active volunteer. There are approximately 1.000 women in our network who follow what we write and organize, but I would say we have a core group of 10 people specifically promoting engineering to girls, though it varies over time. We have made many brochures, websites and interviews with people (male and female) to create different profiles of role models in different areas of expertise.
Could you please provide us with some examples of actions or events that you have organized (or in which you have participated) to promote STEM to girls? What were the targeted ages?
One of the first big initiatives was to create a brochure with 20 to 30 engineer profiles – not of people in senior positions but people with 1 to 8 years of work experience, to enable young people to connect with them – describing what they are actually doing at work. This brochure was sent to schools for students in their final two years (around 16 to 18 years old), with the goal of the school circulating it and discussing it with their students, encouraging them to understand what the profession of engineer is about.
As engineers, we wanted to evaluate the use of what we did versus the effort of doing it, and we found out that some of the brochures never ended up in the students’ hands. Teachers were not distributing the brochure, they were stocked in the director’s office, or they didn’t want to discuss or review it in class. So we concluded that it was a lot of effort for the result we were having for the poor results in reaching the girls. This initiative has not been continued.
In 2007 we tried developing a website, putting pictures and small videos of interviews online. The website was promoted, made known, by teachers, parents and other students, but it was not enough. Here looking at the quantity of people connecting to the site, we saw also that it was not worth the effort.
You mentioned a 2 years’ study done by the University of Leuven/Sociology with funds from the European Science Foundation (ESF), to analyze female engineers and why girls are not choosing STEM studies, could you tell us about it?
The website I mentioned before was part of the ESF study (2), but the Department of Sociology (conducting the study) was mainly interested in understanding the drivers: why are girls choosing or not choosing engineering studies?
From the young people that did not choose engineering, they discovered that they have no clue about what engineers do, and this is true for girls as well as boys. They didn’t know what jobs they could do with an engineering degree. They knew about other professions like doctors, but with engineers it’s more complex; you could work on sales, project management or research and development.
The study showed that girls are more likely to make a choice based on intuition or role models than boys are. As there are more male employees working in STEM, boys know that society finds it a positive career choice, so even without knowing in detail what the jobs are like, they may choose it. It’s the opposite for girls, so to break this vicious circle I find it very important to bring female role models to their attention.
A second part of the study was looking at the barriers female professionals encountered during their career. For that second part, we were the studied subjects. The surprising result that the study discovered is that the barriers to becoming female engineers were not at all different from the standard barriers to all female professionals.
From your many years of experience in promoting STEM to girls, could you share with us what worked and why?
Results also indicated that girls had more questions about their future job than boys did. They wanted to know more about it before deciding. And for girls, human interaction is important; you can motivate a girl much more during a close interaction than you can do via a website.
So as I already mentioned, putting female role models at the girls’ reach is the most important factor for me, it will allow them to ask their questions, to express their doubts.
In order to be sustainable and not dependent on our free time we put in place, 5 years ago, an official program with the support of the Flemish government called ‘De wereld aan je voeten’ (3). It’s an operational project where we put students from their final school years into contact with engineers who can serve as their role models.
It took us 1,5 years but we managed to get funds from the Flemish government. We now have a few paid project managers that take care of connecting schools with companies. They organize visits from the school students to talk to engineers, and make sure there is at least one female engineer in every group. It is important because for example, girls will only ask the question about balance between work and family to female role models..
Which initiatives would you choose as the most effective ones? Are they all realistic? What actions would you recommend as the most important?
As I mentioned already, we are mainly sending pupils to companies to meet STEM role models. We found a good synergy with the HR directors on this initiative, because they have been struggling for many years to find more engineers. This means there is an economic need, a market need. And, personally, I think that it would be a relief not to be the only female engineer at work.
Also we request companies to select female engineers as role models; the company itself is putting their names forward. The effort required from these women is very little; it’s in their working hours, at their place of work. For women this does make a difference and companies are supporting this initiative. This is a great side effect of our initiative.
On the other hand, I would mention that we thought this was a once-only initiative to create a 10 year program, but every 2 years we have had to renew the effort of contacting companies and schoolteachers, mainly because the people we have previously been in contact with have moved from that position. The program has to be ‘sold’ in the schools again. We have to show the teachers the link with their program and the general educational targets they have to accomplish. It has to be a win-win situation for them too.
How do you measure success in the implemented initiatives? What key performance indicator (KPI’s) do you use?
We have a few KPIs, one is the ratio of women in companies and our target is to reach 30%. Another measure we are using is the number of hours that a student has been in contact with a role model. It usually begins with a 2 hour presentation in the company, but they can also follow up through web-quest and other contacts with the role models.
There are 100.000 students in the 5th and 6th years of the Flemish secondary school education system, but our target population is only 50% of that number. We are only interested in those that do technical studies specializing in math and/or science, because they have the potential to continue in STEM. Now we are reaching 7% of those pupils with our program. At this stage there are almost half and half girls and boys, but in University only 10% of engineering students are female.
Reaching only 7% is not enough to see an impact. We would like to increase our reach – in The Netherlands there is a similar campaign which reaches 80% of their target population every year.
Are you in touch with any other institution with a view to sharing best practices?
The biggest project is in The Netherlands, but there are other successful initiatives in Ireland, where the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation has a special program to promote science:Discover Science & Engineering (DSE) (4), partnering with STEPS (5)specifically for engineering..
We thank you for sharing your experience with us. As we discussed, it would be great to prevent other countries/institutions from making the same mistakes and wasting their time and their budget. Do you have any more thoughts to share with us?
I would like to mention also that almost all programs to motivate young people into STEM focus on making them play with science and technology, and from what I know, this motivates boys but for girls it would be better to relate it to a societal goal and show them how technology can solve the current world problems. I see here a danger of wasting the scarce resources that there are for improving the female presence in STEM.
As a last question, would you encourage other female professionals to invest their private time on trying to encourage girls into scientific, technological, engineering, and maths based careers? Is it rewarding?
Yes, definitely. For me, being involved in this not only rewards me at a private level, but gives me the opportunity to contact CEOs and HR directors to explain the program to them, so I expand my professional network at the same time and I also gain from this initiative. I have often used the connections in a professional way afterwards. I would probably not have dared to contact some of them if it was just to put myself forward. Again, it’s a win-win situation.
Valerie Tanghe studied engineering at the University of Leuven where she specialized in telecommunications and graduated in 1995. She has been working in different companies and in different positions in order to gain experience in technical as well as business and management matters. She now works at Belgacom, where she manages projects to make the billing applications more customer oriented. Valerie has also headed the "Woman and Engineering" think thank for several years, resulting in the launch of large projects ('De Wereld aan je voeten') to stimulate young people to choose to study science and engineering and particularly focusing on methods that can attract young women.
Any views and opinions presented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Belgacom, nor do they constitute a legally binding agreement.
* STEM stands for Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics