Tackling the gender gap in the Stem sector

By Hannah McDowell Thursday, June 5, 2014

It is common knowledge that more boys than girls choose to study STEM subjects and tackling this gender gap is a topic of much debate. Sarah Shaw, communications director at WISE, explores the need to address the issue in her recent article for the Guardian:

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“If the first step to solving a problem is highlighting it, then we're making progress in trying to raise the numbers of girls studying science and maths. It's well known now that more boys than girls study those subjects, and a light has been shone on the gender gap in the Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) sector. But, as the government launches a new campaign to try to encourage girls into these subjects and careers, how can we really bring about change, and not simply underline the problem yet again?

The primary message of the new "Your Life' campaign – that science and maths are the pathway to a successful and well-paid career – is very powerful. It is great to see the government supporting such a well-backed initiative; change is already happening and as momentum builds increased awareness we hope the pace of change will increase. Teachers have a pivotal role to play in changing the attitudes of pupils and parents to bring about this transformation.

In terms of education, the plan is to increase the number of students taking A-level maths and physics by 50% over the next three years. There is a huge amount of work needed to achieve this, not least a specific approach to engage more girls. At the moment, the "pipeline breaks" at 16: record numbers of pupils, almost half of them girls, are taking GCSE physics, but only 2% of girls taking A-levels take the subject, and just 8% take maths. This huge imbalance won't change until attitudes do: it should be no more acceptable for girls to say "I'm not very good at maths" than "I can't read very well".

Research shows that girls opt out subconsciously from maths and science from as young as seven, so early engagement is vitally important. The message to pupils should be that job prospects increase with maths and science subjects taken to the highest level the individual can attain, and the messages to parents about employability and earning capacity should back this up.

So how do we make these subjects more attractive to girls in particular? Inspirational teaching is, of course, essential – engaging girls with the topic and making it relevant to them. There's also a need to break down stereotypes which can be perpetuated unwittingly by teachers, parents and other influencers on young people. Given how soon girls veer away from science, it's never too early to start an "image revamp" of these subjects among our daughters: to show them that maths and science are not subjects for geeks and freaks but are the key to the future.

By encouraging a more up-to-date perception of science careers, we can show that women engineers work on challenges that really grab girls' imaginations. We know girls are inspired by the chance to change the world for the better, to make a difference and to be creative, and Stem subjects and the careers they lead to should tap that deep well of inspiration. Careers advisers and teachers can confidently tell their pupils that careers in Stem offer chances to change the world, not to mention good career prospects, higher than average pay and opportunities to travel. And parents looking at funding three expensive years at university should not forget that traditionally safe educational routes such as law and medicine are no longer a guarantee of a career path: there are more graduates in these subjects than there are starter positions.

There is certainly no question over the demand for employees with a maths and physics background. UK industry and indeed the UK economy need 830,000 professional scientists, engineers and technologists by 2020 to replace those retiring; this equates to 100,000 new professionals each year. Without a critical mass of female talent included in the number we are likely to fall well short of this aim and miss out on benefiting from the ideas and perspectives that women bring to the table."

What’s your opinion on the gender gap in the Stem sector? Is there more to be done to encourage girls to study Stem subjects?

Categories: STEM