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Lab Equality

Sciences Struggle to Attract Young Women

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.

Johannes Arlt/ DER SPIEGEL
Tuesday, 9/24/2013   06:15 PM

"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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