Why do so few girls study STEM subjects?

A blog on the Guardian’s website last week posed the question ‘Why do so few girls study STEM subjects?’, and urged readers to ‘tackle the stereotypes they are exposed to early on’.

This call to action is based on the fact that, with women making up only 14 percent of the STEM workforce (despite making up about half of the UK’s wider workforce), they are certainly underrepresented. This matters because girls, who may have been well-suited for a rewarding STEM career, have been dissuaded based not on what they enjoy or would excel in, but on perceptions that are formed from a young age about whether STEM subjects and careers are suited to girls and women.

As someone who happily sees on results days year after year the fantastic capacity for girls to excel in STEM subjects, it is differences in attitude, rather than aptitude, which interest me. The article refers to differences between boys’ and girls’ attitudes to: “social belongingness”, with teenagers choosing subjects that will be taken by more of their own gender; and “self-efficacy”, or an individual’s belief in their own potential for success. These two points are particularly relevant when we recognise that children as young as six are beginning to form opinions about what are boys’ or girls’ subjects or careers. We need to engender in all children a belief that any subject or career is open to them, and that regardless of whether there are more boys or girls within the group, they will have ‘social belonging’.

One of the best aspects of single-sex schools is that, during these formative years, we are able to tackle any subject matter, skill development, or area of developing responsibility, without any being thought of as more suited to boys or girls. When there are no boys to move heavy items, girls will do it; when there are no boys taking A Level Physics, all the girls will ‘belong’ in the lesson; when there are no boys to take leadership roles, girls will be granted these opportunities.

Research shows that girls like to work collaboratively and enjoy problem-solving, but tend to be more self-critical than boys; we can tailor particular learning and assessment styles to suit the ways girls learn best. Girls also have the space to allow their intellectual and social confidence to blossom, discovering who they are and where they want to be in the future so that, by the time they are choosing their A Levels or pathways beyond school, they are not phased by stereotypes about STEM subjects being ‘for boys’.

Excellent careers advice, work experience opportunities, and exposure to positive role models all play an immensely influential role in protecting young people from developing unhelpful attitudes to gendered roles. Initiatives that support schools in putting role models in front of students who they can identify with are essential, and last year I was fortunate to help establish a positive relationship between the Institute of Physics, the Girls’ Schools Association, and Speakezee, to connect female STEM graduates with schools to inspire students and to encourage girls to keep thinking about STEM as a future destination as they navigate their teenage years.

So however we do it, taking the time to show young people that gender is not an inhibiting factor in achieving success is vital – and it works. It goes without saying that equality isn’t achieved by asking all girls to take STEM subjects at A Level – but it is achieved by ensuring they don’t feel dissuaded from doing so because of their gender.

 

Charlotte Avery, Headmistress, St Mary’s School, Cambridge & GSA Vice President

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