More girls in Science

How to engage more girls in science

We mark the UN’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science by exploring the extent of the gender gap in STEM roles — and how teachers can help to bridge the divide.

Last year was the year where women truly found their voice. With a global fightback against sexual harassment, the introduction of gender pay gap reporting and record numbers of female candidates running for office in the United States, 2018 represented a major change in the way society views gender inequality. In science, however, women are still lagging behind.

In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a resolution which outlined internationally-agreed development goals for science and gender parity.

This resolution marked down February 11th as the UN International Day of Women and Girls in Science: an annual day of awareness that aims to encourage more young girls into taking up STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects.

But whilst we all agree that more needs to be done, the steps we need to take seem less clear. Only by confronting the problems can we find solutions.

A man’s world: science and gender bias

While the gender gap is prevalent all across areas of society, science is one of the areas this disparity is felt most.

In 2019, women make up only 22% of the UK’s core STEM workforce. While the number of woman working in STEM is up from the year before (from 864,278 to 908,318), the overall percentage was actually down (from 23% in 2017).

Less than 30% of researchers worldwide are women, while only 9% of STEM companies have 33% or more women on their executive committees. Shockingly, women in science and engineering are even paid 20% less than their male counterparts.

The outlook isn’t much better in education. Even though girls continue to outperform boys in science in secondary school, they are still being deterred from pursuing the subject in higher education due to low confidence and an absence of other girls in the classroom. 

This, in turn, means that girls are missing out on many higher paid careers, especially as core skills in science and technology (ICT in particular) are integral in an increasingly digital job market.

En-gendered division

Girls are less likely than boys to associate their gender with intellectual capabilities, meaning that even gifted and talented girls will drop science altogether after leaving school. Paradoxically, women are also less likely to choose maths and science professions in more tolerant countries. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realise that the STEM industries have a problem.

Social institutions such as the media are culpable, too. The 2015 Gender Bias Without Borders study by the Geena Davis Institute found that men outnumber women in onscreen STEM-related roles almost 7 to 1, with only 12% of characters in life and physical sciences being played by women. Such (mis)representations only serve to cement the idea that science is a masculine vocation and undermine the vital work of female scientists. 

This is something we need to rail against. Increasing the number of women working in the sciences is predicted to increase the UK’s labour value by at least £2bn. If we stifle the potential of women, we all suffer.

Hope for the future

The zeitgeist is changing, however. Of the STEM industries, the science professional workforce is now 43.2% female (in comparison, only 17% of IT technicians are female). While there are important distinctions to make between chemical, biological and physical sciences, there is plenty to be encouraged about.

Social enterprises like Stemettes are leading the charge to inspire and support more girls into scientific qualifications and vocations. 40,000 young people have attended their events in the UK and Ireland, and 95% of these admitted to having an increased interest in STEM after attending. Meanwhile, a raft of scholarships from organisations like Earthwatch and WISE are helping to pipeline girls into roles that match their interests.

Still, much more needs to be done. Though more girls and young women are enrolling for science-based courses in higher education, the gender gap in the STEM industries still remains firmly entrenched — both in terms of representation and in terms of salary. 

Empowering girls to be future pioneers

As the custodians of education, teachers can play a critical role in bridging the divide. Those working in our industry should strive to ensure young girls have full and equal access to and participation in STEM subjects.

An IFS study found that talks from female role models in science, STEM work experience and interventions to build girls’ confidence in science can all have a tangible impact in encouraging girls to pursue the sciences. Given that 4% more girls took a STEM subject at A level in 2018 than the year before, it seems that girls’ concerns are finally being acknowledged.

This does not mean male students should suffer. Instead, we should aim to eradicate the harmful gender stereotypes and unconscious biases that pigeonhole girls into pursuing HEED (health, elementary education, domestic) roles — the very same stereotypes that dissuade boys from choosing such subjects. Only by striving to eliminate the gender gap across all disciplines can we create an environment in which STEM-orientated girls can flourish.

As educators, setting out a clear path for young girls who might otherwise be dissuaded from science should be one of our primary objectives. 

Achieving gender equality is a long way off, but by creating an environment that promotes and celebrates science as an inclusive field, as well as teaching girls a growth mindset, the goals of the 2030 Agenda can be realised. You never know... there’s every chance your classroom could help mould the next the Rosalind Franklin or Jocelyn Bell Burnell.
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