29 Jan 2019 STEAM / STEM

2019 marks the centenary of the Women’s Engineering Society, but a hundred years on girls and women are still hugely underrepresented in STEM occupations, in some STEM subjects at A level and in further education. What are the issues that are still preventing women from entering these fulfilling and often lucrative professions, and how can we begin to address them at an early age? 

Before some of our Young Science Ambassadors days, we ask the children to draw a scientist. Sometimes we are encouraged by the results, but frequently the results are predictably depressing; scientists are men, elderly and grey haired. Sometimes they wear top hats…      

Although statistics show that slightly more girls each year are following STEM subjects at A level and beyond, there is still a noticeable gap. Last year, girls made up just 22.2%of entrants taking Physics A level and only 11.8%of those taking Computer Science. These figures continue to fall at undergraduate level and again for those entering jobs in these areas.

Bio sciences are one area which buck the trend, with more girls than boys taking A level Biology. Interestingly, even at Primary level, children are already seeing plants and animals as a female domain. These images from one of our Young Science Ambassadors sessions reinforce that perfectly. Out of 20 children, only three drew women, and these were for bio scientists.

We’re going in the right direction, but what can be done at home and at school to lessen the gap further? 

  • Encouragement is key! Any opportunity to build confidence is vital. This can be in STEM lessons, in casual conversation or in participating in schemes such as our Young Ambassadors days, when girls and boys gain so much confidence. Or it can be in school science weeks or days.
  • STEM days out, both with family and as a school. School trips are memorable events which so often inspire children to develop a lifelong interest. Follow our Facebook page around holiday times, when we often list STEM events around the UK, some of which are free. 
  • STEM clubs. Studies show that girls engaged in STEM clubs are significantly more likely to say they will choose Physics or Computer Science in secondary school. We tend to find that our clubs are split at about 50/50 girls and boys. It’s a great opportunity to encourage all girls to further their interest in STEM and to reinforce the idea that this is their sphere as much as it is the boys’. It’s also an opportunity for club leaders to spot girls (and boys) with potential to do really well in STEM subjects and to encourage them to develop this further. Look out for clubs at your school or Saturday / holiday clubs in your area.
  • STEM play in Early Years and through primary school. Frustratingly, many girls still gravitate towards areas such as small world play while many boys head for the Lego! Why not set a Lego, K’Nex or engineering challenge on a Friday afternoon for the whole class at least once a month? Observe whether girls are then more likely to head for construction toys in the classroom or in periods such as golden time.
  • Girls only sessions. One of the key barriers seems to be the perception that subjects such as Physics, Maths and Computer Sciences are male “territory”. Girls feel they may be the only girl in the class, and also report feeling that they are not ‘clever enough’. Interestingly, girls are two and a half times more likely to take one of these subjects at A-level in single-sex schools. STEAMWORKS have delivered STEM outreach for over 400 girls this January alone. Feedback has been very positive with teachers reporting that girl only sessions give girls the chance and the confidence to build skills. 
  • Positive role models. In their everyday lives children do see more female STEM role models such as doctors, or scientists on TV, and this will play a part in normalising women and girls in STEM. In the classroom, visiting speakers, images on displays and books can all help. (See website below with book list for classroom or home.)

If you have any other suggestions that have worked at school or at home we’d love to hear from you – drop us an email!

To end on a positive note, at the beginning and end of the Young Science Ambassadors sessions, children are asked whether they see themselves as scientists. Although children are reluctant to count themselves as a scientist at the beginning of the day, all (girls and boys) are adamant by the end of the day that they are definitely scientists. And they will even acknowledge that session leader Fern could actually be a scientist too!!

https://www.theschoolrun.com/STEM-for-girls   Includes list of books about female scientists