Do a quick internet search with the keywords ‘girls’, ‘physics’ and ‘STEM’. Go on… I did, it was illuminating.
Up came headlines such as: ‘Girls are under-represented in physics’ (1); ‘Only 20% of girls choose to study physics at A – level’ (2); ‘the issue of girls’ under-representation in physics’ (3) and ‘half of all state schools in England do not send any girls on to study A-level physics,(4).
Its a Girl Thing
The issue of gender and STEM has been close to my heart for quite some time.
At University, there were 103 students on my course. 6 of us were girls. To be honest, it came as a bit of a shock to me after attending an all girls school. We didn’t have the internet back then, so I didn’t know that girls don’t enrol on engineering courses in huge quantities. One of my Masters projects was a study into gender distribution across the University. Unsurprisingly the data showed that there were far fewer girls in the engineering department than elsewhere. After teaching Physics for quite some time, I have come to the conclusion that things simply have not moved on as much as the young, idealistic me hoped.
I recently read an article published by the school I attended as a student. It was celebrating a current Y13 student for securing a coveted place on an apprenticeship scheme run by a global technology company. There were over 1000 applications for 14 places. This is a fantastic achievement, and my congratulations are freely given to the student concerned. Sadly, the overall tone of the piece left me underwhelmed. The theme running through the article was that this was an achievement because of the gender of the student. Not because of the years of dedication, passion and hard work that went into it. I hope the schools of the other 13 students awarded places also publicised their accomplishment. I do, however, suspect that the 13 other applicants did not have articles written celebrating their placement being an accomplishment because of their gender.
What to do then?
Wouldn’t it be refreshing if, in the future, the results from my web search celebrated attainment, modelled success and discussed achievement. Imagine you are a teenage girl, looking onto which A-Levels to take. It is not an easy decision for anyone. You google ‘girls’ and ‘physics’. You read that if you do pick physics then you will likely be the only girl in your class and that you probably wont complete the course beyond AS level. That is hardly likely to inspire anyone. Some might, justifiably, be put off the idea of spending their professional life standing out because they are different from the majority.
So, this is what I am suggesting. Rather than telling girls that they will be part of a struggling minority if they pursue a STEM career we tell them positives instead. Girls achieved more A and A* in A-Level physics than boys in 2013 (5). In 2010, 23.7% of female physics degree students obtained a first class bachelor degree, compared with 17.9% of males (6). These headlines would be far more inspirational for a teenage girl to read. Surely we should be supporting our future generation of STEM workers with hope rather than telling them the future is bleak if they are female.
Educators should make sure that they are not unconsciously discouraging girls by presenting STEM subjects in a gender biased manner (Here at Totally Physics all the products and resources are designed to be less unappealing to girls than others on the market). Parents, encourage your girls (and boys) to play with Lego. There are so many positives about STEM, it is up to us to pass on the message with enthusiasm and passion.
Gender will only cease to be an issue when discussing STEM subjects and career paths when we stop making it one.