Why don’t girls believe in their own brilliance?

I felt somewhat depressed reading a recent article in the Independent on the findings from a research survey of graduates and university teachers, which found that women are still deterred from careers in science and engineering. The article describes the misconception that success in these careers stems from some kind of intangible, innate ‘unschooled genius’. Gender stereotypes of female academic strength are seemingly grounded in diligence and hard work, rather than in intellectual brilliance. The Hermione Granger role model of conscientiousness and ‘swotting’ is how many of the survey participants see young women, contrasting noticeably with the image of ‘natural’ male scientific geniuses like Einstein or Darwin.

Stark statistics:

The article highlighted the under-representation of women completing PhDs in physics and maths, including the fact that 30% of physics, astronomy and computer science doctorates were awarded to women, compared to 60-70% in education, psychology or anthropology. The Women’s Engineering Society report that only 6% of the engineering workforce in the UK is female, among other worrying statistics.

Certainly outdated perceptions, fuelled by unhelpful media portrayals of the intrinsic genius, make it hard to convince young women that they have every chance of success in these fields.

STEM subjects in GDST schools:

I am confident that the girls at Blackheath are well equipped to overcome such misconceptions. The GDST wide commitment to the ‘Your Life’ campaign means that our schools buck the national trend, with over 40% of our graduates going on to study science, medicine, maths and related subjects. Figures from GDST schools show that girls are over twice more likely to study A Level physics or chemistry than girls nationally, and overall nearly half the students in GDST Sixth Forms take at least one science A Level.

The importance of providing strong role models for the girls, through our teaching staff, parents and alumnae, is critical to our success. We are fortunate to benefit from a 60,000-strong GDST Alumnae Network to provide STEM role models and facilitate work experience for our girls. At Blackheath High, we have just seen one of our year 13s offered a place to read Maths at Jesus College and our medics beginning to receive their university offers too; I am heartened to see we are effectively winning hearts and minds.

Beyond role models

Role models provide part of the solution, but it is my firm belief that a long-lasting remedy runs deeper than this. What concerned me most about the article, was the misunderstanding about ‘fixed intelligence’, which hinders students’ aspirations. Professor Carol Dweck’s research (partly based on our growing knowledge of brain science), argues persuasively that believing your intelligence or personal qualities to be fixed in stone can be immensely damaging for young students.

By helping our girls to understand neuro-plasticity, and the power of application and practice, we are providing them with the tools of future success. It is incredibly important to be honest with students about the commitment and time required to thrive intellectually:

“Even geniuses work hard.” Dweck

Our focus upon resilience and risk-taking at Blackheath, fostered through our Five Pillars, goes a long way to addressing this. Clubs like ‘Iron Woman’ training club, or Formula 1 Maths club, enable girls to work hard at something difficult and deal with setbacks: all vital life lessons.

I only wish I had been fortunate enough to understand neuro-plasticity at a young age. It might have helped my overcome my fear of mathematics and embrace a subject that I now find both fascinating and beautiful!


Carol Chandler Thompson, Headteacher, Blackheath High School, GDST

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