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Who said STEM wasn’t for girls?


Young people have big dreams, so the ambition to work in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) should never feel out of reach. Three female Umicore colleagues recently lent their voice to a call for more girls to fulfil their talents in STEM, as part of Da’s Geniaal’s International Day of Girls in Science event in Brussels.

The big question of the day was how to get more girls interested in science, and there were plenty of ideas shared, including from Helena Vandommele in our Precious Metals Refining team. She says it’s never too early to shout about the joys of science. “Girls should know from early on in their schooling that a STEM pathway is available to them. They should know that yes, they are smart enough and yes, they can do it! If you choose to study science there are endless possibilities, as I’ve found out!’’

Ann-Sofie van Nevel, Young Graduate, says the definition of STEM needs to be broader to engage and inspire young scientific talents. “There are a whole range of subjects and interests bound up in STEM and so much to be excited about – like astronomy, engineering, neuroscience, renewable energy and AI. What’s more exciting than working on the science and technology that could shape our future?”

This isn’t a ‘girls-only’ issue, however. As Shauni Veberckmoes, Precious Metals Refining, explains: “Changing the perception of STEM requires effort from all of us – male and female. Because when everyone gets used to the idea of STEM being a space for girls and boys, the barrier to entry will be much lower. We should all get involved and be part of the conversation.”


Reason to be optimistic

The event was a showcase for the future of women in STEM, and judging by the enthusiasm of the participants, there’s plenty of science talent coming through. As Ann-Sofie says: “All the girls we saw were very motivated, which was great to see. They wanted to be engineers, surgeons, scientists…and more. I really hope their passion never diminishes, because there’s no doubt they could be an inspiration for the next generation.”

Helena Vandommele was similarly impressed by the attitude of the young students. “Most of them were still in high school yet knew exactly what they wanted to do and saw studying science as a way to get there. Many of the young people we met were also very interested in Umicore and asked insightful questions about the kind of work we do. It’s inspiring to think of where these young talents could go in their careers.” 

For Shauni Verberckmoes, the easy-going nature of the event meant that conversations flowed freely. “It was a fantastic environment for these girls to talk with people who are already in the industry, some doing jobs they may know nothing about. So, it was nice to broaden their horizons and introduce them to work they hadn’t previously considered.” 

With perspectives shared by participants from around the world, it became clear that, unfortunately, opportunities differ depending on where you’re from. Ann-Sofie: “It definitely hit home that we’re lucky to have the opportunities we have here in Belgium and the rest of Europe. One girl was from Afghanistan, where women are simply not allowed to hold these kinds of jobs.”


What would you tell your younger self?

Whether in our career or personal lives, role models allow us to perceive what’s possible and serve as a useful guide to achieving our goals. Shauni shared a message of following your heart. “I told the girls to pick a job or university course that they’re passionate about. Don’t just do something because you feel that’s what you’re meant to do, but rather, chase after your interests.”

Helena echoed this sentiment: “You spend a lot of time at your job, so you might as well go for something you love! Some of the girls were afraid that pursuing STEM subjects at university and beyond would be too difficult, so I told them to try and stay motivated when things get challenging, especially if it’s an area they’re really interested in.”

Sometimes a bit of extra resilience is necessary. As Ann-Sofie explains: “On rare occasions in the past, I’ve had people  make derogatory remarks or question my abilities, purely because of my gender. Those experiences stayed with me – but I haven’t let them get me down. The most important advice I can give, is to be aware of the fact that these comments lack foundation and are purely based on someone’s perception. ”

And so, what’s next? According to Shauni, this is an event worth repeating. “We discussed how by bringing more attention to events like these, we could see a much bigger impact. Wouldn’t it be great if in a few years’ time, schoolgirls all over Belgium knew about Da’s Geniaal? Of course, this shouldn’t be the only initiative to encourage girls into STEM, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction.”