Bridging the gender gap: Why do so few girls study Stem subjects?
The Guardian 8/3/18 reports on reasons for the gender gap in STEM subjects and a campaign in conjunction with GSA and the Institute of Physics to connect female academics with schools, to inspire young teenage girls to study STEM subjects.
To attract more girls to study Stem subjects at university, we need to tackle the stereotypes they are exposed to early on
You will no doubt be aware that women are underrepresented in Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) occupations. They make up 14.4% of all people working in Stem in the UK, despite being about half of the workforce. This is well short of the country’s goal of a critical mass of 30%. Increasing women in Stem is forecast to increase the UK’s labour value by at least £2bn.
There is a whole tangle of reasons why the gender gap in Stem exists. One is a pipeline issue – fewer girls than boys choose to study Stem subjects at secondary school and university. Interventions internationally mean the numbers of girls in Stem subjects are creeping up very slowly, but the gap remains surprisingly resistant nonetheless.
Are girls biologically worse than boys at Stem subjects at school?
Biological explanations tend to rely on the fact that boys are better at spatial tasks while girls are better at verbal recall tasks. However, these differences are very small and their link to Stem ability is tenuous.
Meta-analyses across a range of skills consistently show that girls and boys are on average much more similar than they are different across a range of skills. For instance, a meta-analysis of gender differences in mathematics, based on 100 studies and testing more than three million people, found that girls outperformed boys overall in primary school, there was no difference in secondary school and there was only a very slight and inconsistent male advantage for complex problem solving.
Typically, girls do as well as or outperform boys in Stem classwork but do worse on tests. The International Student Assessment (Pisa) reports on 276,165 15-year-olds from 40 countries who take identical tests in mathematics and reading. In 2015, the average difference between high-achieving boys and girls was 19 points, the equivalent of about half a year at school. But these differences disappeared when factoring in reported levels of self-confidence or anxiety towards mathematics. On average, girls were more anxious about tests than boys were, and this seems to have affected their score.
Research from these different perspectives converge on the idea that there is little to no difference in boys’ and girls’ average ability at Stem subjects. This means that in order to attract more girls to study Stem subjects at university and enter Stem careers, we need to tackle the stereotypes they are exposed to and we need to do this early.
One way to encourage girls is to use appropriate role models. As part of a campaign to coincide with today’s International Women’s Day, Speakezee, a platform that connects academics with non-academic audiences, is working with the Institute of Physics and the Girls’ School Association to send young female graduate Stem students into schools to talk to and inspire young teenage girls to consider pursuing Stem topics at A-level. Professor Brian Cox may be the popular face of physics for mass viewing audiences in the UK, but young girls need individuals they are more likely to relate to if they are to be persuaded not to abandon their Stem potential.