Britain will not realise the success of half its workforce if schools do not ensure science-based subjects are open and accessible for teenage girls.
In a speech in London this morning (10 November), the Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, said that the gender pay gap will never be eliminated unless girls and other under-represented parts of society "don't feel and are not told that certain subjects are the preserve of men".
Morgan was speaking at an event to promote the Your Life campaign, a three-year government drive to inspire young people to continue their education in science, technology, engineering and mathematical (STEM) subjects. She challenged the education sector, as well as the commercial business and technology sectors to "come together to help open young people's eyes to what studying STEM subjects could mean".
A recent study carried out by Nestlé found that the skills crisis Britain faces is partly down to the lack of relevant careers advice regarding science-based subjects.
While almost 80% of 14 to 16-year-olds would consider a career in a STEM-related industry, 52% of those had very little information about what kind of career they could attain as a result.
"Students are making decisions aged 15 which will hold them back for the rest of their lives," said Morgan, who said the Your Life campaign's aim of increasing the number of people studying maths and physics at A Level by 50% would mean "50% more highly-qualified people, equipped to take their place in an increasingly global economy".
However, the challenge the government faces is stark – both in increasing the number of girls studying STEM subjects, and in raising the profile of industries which are not viewed as being attractive careers among young people.
Less than two-thirds of girls who achieved A* in their GCSE maths examinations went on to study at A Level, despite this being what Morgan described as "the subject employers value most".
The perception of engineering, for instance, is vastly different in China, Germany and Japan, according to Barb Samardzich, Vice-President and COO of Ford Europe, who told the event that Britain has a "lot of work to do to change the image of engineering".
"In China, Japan and Germany, the three careers people aspire to have are doctor, lawyer and engineer. That's not the same here," she said.
Samardzich joined Ford in 1990 as an engineer and said that in some ways, the field remains as difficult to enter for females now as it did 30 years ago. Not only is this socially disadvantageous, but the commercial price is also great, given that 50% of the talent pool is effectively closed off to the traditional innovators in the engineering sector.
"By working with young people will help dispel some of the myths behind STEM subjects. They are not stuffy boring subjects for people who don't get outdoors much. Far from it, they are key to the most fast-paced areas of life and behind some of the most exciting new developments around the world," said Morgan.
She added: "Success in the sciences is one of the biggest drivers of social mobility allowing young people from a range of backgrounds to access careers and opportunities. That's why it's so important that the study of these isn't limited to a handful of schools that coach their students. It isn't just unfair, it would be a waste of talent."