Recent research has shown that there are still far more men than women getting into careers related to the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths). The disparity continues when looking at university admissions which, despite showing more far more women going to university than men, still show the balance tipped in the favour of men when it comes to STEM subjects such as economics, computer science, sports science, or mechanical and electrical engineering. A great deal of effort has been put into encouraging more girls to take up STEM subjects over the years, so why has it failed to make a significant impact, and what can be done about it?
There has been lots of effort to promote and inspire people into different careers, but in order to change the situation we need to understand what is happening to stop girls from taking up these subjects in school and college (and therefore going into relevant careers later on).
Quite surprisingly, a study published last year seemed to point at self-confidence as an issue with these subjects. It was found that even high-achieving girls were more likely to express anxiety about solving maths problems than boys. This comes amid reported feelings of low self-confidence when it came to maths, and by extension therefore, science.
This confidence has a real impact in grades too, with boys consistently outperforming girls in maths. However, it was found that when these anxieties were removed, girls performed at an equal level to boys.
It seems that if we can cut through this anxiety about STEM subjects we would see a greater take-up of these subjects by girls. So, what is happening to cause girls to doubt their ability in STEM subjects?
It is felt that the way maths is often taught early on in schools could be having an impact, with neuroscientists arguing that the way in which maths is taught could be reinforcing ideas that you are either a ‘maths person’ or not. This form of anxiety-based negative selection, the neuro-science research shows, is unwittingly gender biased in favour of boys. This all basically means that girls are less likely to see themselves as ‘maths people’ and will turn away from STEM subjects as they get older.
It seems that there is a need to address how maths is taught in order to increase not just the take-up of STEM subjects but also achievement levels among girls, and the problem isn’t just one faced by the UK. Many countries around the world are having similar problems with getting girls to enter STEM careers, so perhaps we should also look overseas for an answer?
Perhaps, as well as looking at teaching, it is time to think about the gender stereotypes that we are faced with in our society. By recognising that there are societal differences we can look to not only address them, but also work them into how we promote STEM subjects to girls. For example, we have to bear in mind factors like how social media can change someone’s perceptions of career success.
I recently came across a United States-based initiative called Rising Star Girls. Set up by astronomer, astrobiologist, actor, and writer, Dr. Aomawa Shields, this organisation seeks to encourage young girls of all ethnicities and backgrounds to “learn, explore, and discover the universe.” This is done by appealing to the girls with interactive workshops including creative arts like theatre and writing. They even provide workshop activities for use in the classroom.
Rather than drawing a line under whether someone is good at maths and science or not, Rising Star Girls argues that “there is no one way to be a scientist, and that together, both science and the arts can create enlightened future scientists and imaginative thinkers.” This different perspective on STEM subjects is certainly helped by Dr Shields’ own background in the arts, and it may not just benefit girls.
Where there has been a belief that someone is either good at STEM subjects or not, by changing the perception of these subjects it seems we can encourage more girls to get involved, but it may also open up opportunities for those boys who also lacked confidence in these areas.
With STEM subjects having such a huge impact on us globally, can we afford to waste any more time in breaking down the barriers that are preventing our most capable young men and women from getting involved?
There are plenty of training and education opportunities available for those wanting to get into STEM careers, but we just need to make sure they appeal across the board.