Women in STEM – Where are the missing 115,000 female students?
We’re still seeing too many capable girls turning away from promising STEM careers, warns Christina Astin…
When talking about women in STEM, I often ask people to close their eyes and picture an engineer. If you do it now, what do you see? A hard hat and hi-vis jacket? Heavy machinery? An older white male?
Hopefully not. But attempt a Google Images search for ‘engineer’ and you’ll quickly see how strong the stereotypes out there still are. It’s a similar story for the terms ‘scientist’, ‘technician’ or ‘mathematician’. In fact, new analysis has revealed that AI image generators are also potentially reinforcing stereotypes by underrepresenting women in particular STEM careers.
A recent report from EngineeringUK reveals that 115,000 more girls need to take maths or physics A Level to balance out the male students studying for engineering and technology degrees.
“115,000 more girls need to take maths or physics A Level to balance out the male students”
We know that the proportion of girls choosing A Level STEM subjects has remained stubbornly low for decades. So low that it would take 250 years at current rates to attain gender parity in physics alone.
So why hasn’t this changed? Does it even matter? And what, in any case, can teachers do about it?
Assertive boys / caring girls
Unfortunately, society still peddles the view that ‘science isn’t for girls’. From toy shops to boardrooms, ‘assertive boy / caring girl’ attitudes are continually reinforced by parents and the media.
This makes it tough for teachers to tackle the stereotypes.
The idea that girls simply don’t like physics or ‘hard maths’ perpetuates widespread unconscious bias. The result? Girls feel less free when choosing their A levels.
“The idea that girls simply don’t like physics or ‘hard maths’ perpetuates widespread unconscious bias”
I spoke recently to one GCSE student about participating in science lessons, to which she responded with astonishment. “I’d never put up my hand – it’s unfeminine”, she said.
Is it any wonder that teenage girls are so reluctant to pursue subjects with such a stubborn image problem?
Teenage girls are being put off pursuing careers that will lead to them becoming happy and fulfilled. Yet at the same time, diversity is increasingly good for business.
Companies are keen to employ more women in STEM because they know that a diverse workforce makes them more successful.
Women and other underrepresented groups can bring different perspectives to bear on how a company operates. They can strengthen decision-making at all levels of an organisation.
“Women and other underrepresented groups can bring different perspectives to bear”
For evidence of this, witness the flawed designs of numerous products and functions, from airbags to voice recognition software. Their shortcomings for non-male users have only been belatedly recognised and addressed within
Moreover, given the enormous challenges we face as a society, we can’t afford to discourage any one group from contributing possible solutions. We urgently need more wind turbine engineers, epidemiologists, meteorologists and others who ‘get’ science.
There is some recent research that should give us hope for the future. We understand far better now what will help to fix the leaky STEM pipeline. And teachers have an important role to play.
“Teachers have an important role to play”
Historically, careers advice has tended to focus on becoming ‘a scientist’, and highlighting what it is that scientists ‘do’. This approach has proved off-putting for many who instinctively equate the term ‘scientist’ with the well-worn societal stereotype of a ‘stale, pale and male’ boffin wearing a white lab coat.
Happily, however, prompted by research carried out by ASPIRES and others, we’re now seeing a greater focus on showing school students that there are many people working in STEM who are actually like them. People who look like them, possess similar traits and enjoy similar interests.
There’s also the fact that teachers tend to be the biggest influence on young people’s subject choices after parents and friends.
We can all do more throughout KS3/4 to encourage girls’ interest in becoming women in STEM, beyond the occasional encouraging remark.
All students deserve excellent teachers, of course, but research shows that girls depend even more than boys on teaching quality. Their A Level choices often reflect the confidence they have in their subject teachers.
Attracting and retaining STEM teachers who can have a positive impact in this area is therefore crucial. But, needless to say, that’s harder than ever.
You should also ensure that your schemes of work refer to female scientists and engineers. Draw on examples from a wide variety of gender-neutral contexts.
Be careful, though – tokenistic ‘girl-friendly’ references (e.g., ‘The science of lipstick!’) will be seen as patronising.
Having your science, maths, technology and computer science departments work together as a unified ‘STEM’ team can certainly help in this area. You can potentially save time if teaching orders and methodologies are triangulated.
Unhelpful messages about women in STEM
Many schools set higher entry criteria for post-16 STEM subjects compared to others. This perpetuates the myth that you have to be especially clever to study them.
Once again, this invokes those nerdy stereotypes and potentially puts off girls who don’t identify with them.
“This invokes those nerdy stereotypes and potentially puts off girls who don’t identify with them”
Resources to try
But simply getting rid of dated stereotypes isn’t enough. We need to replace them with something better. People Like Us is an online teaching resource that uses film and interactive activities to highlight role models who overcame challenges at home or school before ultimately finding fulfilling jobs in STEM industries.
Another online option is The Infinity Game. This is a quiz-based resource that can raise awareness among students of physics-related careers they might not have previously considered.
Having opportunities to meet inspiring STEM role models, in person or virtually, can be invaluable. Cast your net as widely as possible by seeing whether you can invite any parents, governors, local university staff or alumni working in a STEM role to address or mentor your students.
I was told countless times at parents’ evenings, ‘You don’t look like a physics teacher’ or ‘Of course, I was never any good at science – ha ha!’
Neither are helpful messages for daughters to hear. Though it may well be that parents themselves need further information about the possible pathways into STEM – from technical apprenticeships, to graduate careers.
They may also need friendly guidance on what they can do to help counteract negative stereotypes.
Schools that are serious about addressing diversity will make gender equality a priority for the whole school. This might involve making it a standing item on every SLT agenda. Or you might appoint a school gender champion to challenge mindsets and monitor school policies.
Each department could in turn critically examine its curriculum, outcomes and language. This is something that’s just as important for boys wanting to choose drama as it is for girls wanting to choose physics.
There are some fabulous resources available to support schools in this area. The advice on best practice available to members of the WISE Campaign is well worth a look.
The Institute of Physics has taken a real lead in this space. It’s partnered with UCL, Kings College London and the University Council of Modern Languages to create the Gender Action award programme and resource library.
Don’t be daunted by the scale of the problem. Even small changes of emphasis can have a noticeable impact in schools and help girls make freer, more informed choices regarding their futures.
“Don’t be daunted by the scale of the problem”
Who knows – maybe we can help find those missing 115,000 women in STEM after all.
Christina Astin is a former physics teacher, now education consultant supporting partnerships, science and outreach. She also chairs Planet Possibility – a consortium working to improve diversity in physics. Find out more at astinconsulting.com.
Browse a selection of great activities for your STEM Club.