More young people than ever are studying ccience, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects, but there’s still a recruitment problem with young women. Here in the UK, 22% of maths and computer science students are female and in engineering, that figure is even lower, standing at a measly 13%. Why?
The problem that science faces is one of image. It’s during high school, where girls are at the age of insecurity, that learning STEM subjects becomes a lot more complicated and important choices, from A Levels to university degrees, have to be made. Certain areas of science, especially maths and physics, are seen as overtly masculine subjects, based around equations and solid book learning. For many people, including myself, GCSE physics put me off continuing it at A Level because it never caught my attention (side note: it probably didn’t help that my physics teacher did not have a physics degree, he was a biologist) in the same way that the other sciences did.
Because of this, I stuck to the biological sciences and chemistry and eventually went on to read biomedical science at university. My course had a lot more girls than boys (about 2/3’s of the cohort was female) and we had a lot of female lecturers. Other courses at my university though, like computer science and engineering, reflected the national average when it came to female students.
In this Telegraph feature about a lack of girls studying physics at A-Level, female students at a school in Bristol all agreed that physics doesn’t feel relevant to real life and it’s full of boring equations. What we must also remember is that teenage boys and girls think in different ways, for example, boys can sometimes prefer more abstract styles of thinking as opposed to thinking about the here and now. But To top it all off, there can also be the sense of not belonging, it can be nerve wracking for any student to be in a classroom that’s full of the opposite sex (and I’m talking about both men and women here, girls can be daunting too) as during those awkward teenage years when we all yearn for a social support group.
So how can we tackle this problem, and get girls more interested in the ‘hard’ STEM subjects?
Make it relevant
One of the biggest problems faced by STEM subjects is that they carry the image of white coats walking around in a laboratory. Whilst this is of course a major part of modern science, it’s not the be all and end all. Science is seen in every aspect of our lives, from the way that we breathe to how the touchscreen works on our smartphones and even relatively simple things such as how yeast makes dough rise.
Schools need to get this relevance across to students, male and female. A good example that I found was from Nikki Yates, writing for The Telegraph, whose daughter was fascinated about her work combating malaria in Kenya. A bad example is European Commission’s attempt to get young women interested in science by producing this video called ‘Science: It’s A Girl Thing!’:
Not quite the way to go methinks…makeup is the result of science, but girls can do more than just study lipstick and eyeshadow.
Showcase some role models
Everybody looks up to someone at some point in their lives, and one potential way to get girls more interested in science is to have positive female role models that they could aspire to be like. Female doctors or scientists at the top of their respective fields are a great way of introducing science to young women, and if we can get them into more prominent public positions such as TV show hosts, then that’s great. One person who I can think of is Alice Roberts, who has presented The Incredible Human Journey on the BBC and there’s also Drs Pixie McKenna and Dawn Harper from Embarrassing Bodies on Channel 4.
*If you’re a parent with a daughter interested in the sciences, see if you’ve got any friends or colleagues who can talk to her or even show her round work*
Start at a young age
Gaining the interest of young women doesn’t have to start when they’re teenagers, you can get a little girls interest by introducing new toys and fun learning environments. For example, in my first school (ages 4-8) we had a regular play afternoon that included bricks to make houses and other educational types of toys. Even getting a child into the kitchen to help out is useful in the long run, because if they have to follow a recipe and use measurements, then that’s teaching them without them even really noticing.
Also, there are so many children’s science shows to go, such as The Energy Show at the Science Museum in London. There are lots of initiatives out there, so let’s use them.
This article in the Guardian also has lots of ideas for getting girls interested in STEM subjects. What do you think about this sometimes big gender divide? Feel free to comment below!