Dr. Jo Foster, Director of The Institute for Research in Schools, believes girls studying and working in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths (STEM) is a cause to celebrate and not one for complacency. Rightly so. In her 13th August 2021 article for Schools Week in this topic, she suggests that the increasing success of girls in GCSE science may lead girls to choosing to pursue STEM subjects, and perhaps even STEM careers further down the line.
She however says this remains to be seen, and yet she adds: “We know from our research that carrying out real science research as part of the curriculum is motivational for students and teachers alike. It increases their enjoyment and makes young people more determined to pursue a career in STEM.”
“Despite years of interventions to encourage women into STEM careers, the gender difference within the workforce remains consistent across age groups; 29 per cent of 16–29-year-olds in STEM are women, and 28 per cent of 30–49-year-olds.”
Role models are an important way to inspire women into STEM learning and STEM careers. Teachers should therefore highlight women who’ve done well in these disciplines – both from the past such as Marie Curie – the Polish-French physicist, and from the present such as Dame Sarah Gilbert – the lead scientist of the Oxford- AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine.
… equally important is providing young people with opportunities to take part in and experience real research. Teaching science without it is like teaching football and never allowing the aspiring players onto the pitch.
Foster therefore comments: “We know it is important for girls to encounter examples of women who have succeeded in STEM careers for them to choose the same. And equally important is providing young people with opportunities to take part in and experience real research. Teaching science without it is like teaching football and never allowing the aspiring players onto the pitch.”
Sylvia Lim, at teacher at Robert Clack School in Dagenham, finds that girls are very much attracted to STEM subjects — particularly where the fields of STEM are conscientious in nature. Job security is another factor that decides which part of a STEM career they choose. “Often girls in STEM are interested in pursuing medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, and the like”, she says. However, she has noticed that there isn’t much motivation amongst girls “to study stem out of the desire to study engineering, mathematics or physics.”
There are organisations that have developed programmes to support women wanting to teach STEM. Teach First is one of them. Georgia Mumby, Storytelling Manager for External Relations at the organisation, describes Lim: “She is a brilliant Science teacher who completed the Teach First teacher training programme in 2018. She teaches is passionate about passing on her enthusiasm for the female scientists and teachers she looked up to during school and when studying Biology at university.”
In June 2021, Teach First published a report, ‘STEMinism: One year on’, which provides insights into how businesses can support schools and pupils to encourage them to take up STEM subjects and career – with a particular focus on inspiring girls. It discusses the ongoing challenges of improving women’s representation in STEM sectors. In fact, the report cites a TeacherTapp poll of 6,943 teachers, which was conducted on 11 March 2021, and which finds that “98% of teachers agree that schools should help break down gender stereotypes relating to subjects and careers.”
Teach Computing is therefore working in collaboration with the Raspberry Pi Foundation; STEM Learning; BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT; the Behavioural Insights Team, Apps for Good and WISE on the Gender Balance in Computing (GBIC) research programme “to find out what works to encourage girls to develop an interest during their primary and secondary school years, and to increase the number of young women who choose to study Computer Science at GCSE and A level.”
In Year 7 and 8 girls are confident, but Year 9 it’s a different story as they begin to care about what other people think.
There is a stigma with STEM topics, as they don’t want to be seen as being nerdy.
However, there is more to do than offer STEM programmes to girls and young women. Girls’ confidence appears to be an obstacle. Philippa Hodgson, Graduate Software Engineer at IT firm Bridgeworks explains:
“In Year 7 and 8 girls are confident, but Year 9 it’s a different story as they begin to care about what other people think. There is a stigma with STEM topics, as they don’t want to be seen as being nerdy. Rather than having a whole group of girls in science in Year 7, there would be just one Year 10. One girl was nervous that the boys would mock her in a science. She became more confident when I sat to talk with her and encouraged her to contribute. The boys were very supportive.”
Her colleague, Sarah Potter, Test Team Lead at Bridgeworks, concurs: “There is a confidence problem that some girls and young women have that steers them away from STEM subjects.” When she went to school, particularly in regard to IT, there were no women teachers. However, in other science and maths areas, she says there was a better mix. There were nevertheless fewer female role models, and so she stresses it’s vital to up women role models to look up to.
7 top tips for inspiring girls
So, given these challenges, what are their 7 top tips for inspiring girls into STEM learning? They are as follows:
- Offer an open dialogue with pupils, from a very young age (even in primary school) discuss the wide variety of STEM careers and expose pupils to many STEM careers from the get-go. Schools need more funding for things like science club, and teachers also need to be given time and funding to support girls in exploring endeavours such as engineering projects or robotics.
- Provide and highlight female role models – including STEM teachers and women working in a diverse range of STEM careers – not just the obvious ones. Lim says it’s important to note that female STEM teachers at primary, secondary and in tertiary education can be fantastic role models for pupils. Inspiring girls to study STEM topics starts from day one of Primary School, and they need to be encouraged throughout their school life. It’s also very inspirational if the teachers have had STEM careers in industry. One of Lim’s teachers had a former career in biomedicine, while another was a biochemist. “They really made me think about where STEM could take me in life”, she says.
- Encourage girls and women to reach their full potential, suggests Potter: “From my own experience, women are more likely to aspire to a more middle area where they feel a bit safer. One of the things I faced at school was being told to not apply to the top university, focusing instead on the ones I could get in rather than the ones I might get in.”
- Offer girls a more rounded education each year, covering a range of topics including STEM. When I was at a primary school, computers weren’t much of a thing, and it was very much dependent on what the teacher was interested in.
- Try to encourage girls to attend STEM clubs, says Hodgson, as they give them the time for creativity to explore the topics. With most girls wanting to join subjects they feel more comfortable with, such as Art and Design, there is a job to do to show them that they can thrive with STEM – and enjoy it.
- Make science fun and explain the link to the science. Teachers will often do fun scientific experiments, but they could do more to reinforce the link to, for example, Newtons Laws used in this — this could be used in engineering jobs such as in Formula1.
- Offer better careers advice at school and college. Hodgson reveals she had very little career advice, and yet she advises girls to: “Be open to different possibilities and engage with universities, as well as to different areas of work”. From an early age, knowing the possibilities would be better, too. After all, not everyone will become a medical doctor.
Self-belief and opportunities
Potter concludes that the key to inspiring girls into STEM learning and careers has to be founded on teaching girls to believe in themselves — making them realise that STEM is a huge discipline. She explains: “There are so many areas they could go into. I joined Bridgeworks as a software developer, but I’ve gone into testing, but it wasn’t one I knew much about. When I was growing up, I looked at being a doctor, but I didn’t know things such as medical research, which might have interested me as a career.”
Hodgson thinks a new-found confidence can be created and instilled in girls by teachers’ enthusiasm for STEM, and that there is a need to remove any stigma associated with girls studying STEM topics. Over the next 5 years, she would like to see more equality. She explains: “Whilst it’s improving, there is still a big divide between male and female students. I would like to see a bigger promotion of careers and jobs in the STEM sector. I was lucky to go with some students to a technology fair, but it only happened in Year 12 and so there was only a limited number of girls being introduced to these jobs.”
Hodgson concludes that while there has been a move in the right direction, there is no use in doing one STEM day a year at school or college. STEM has to be an all-year-round topic. Furthermore, with supportive STEM teachers who are willing to listen, to motivate and to address their pupils’ concerns, girls will be inspired into STEM learning and into successful future STEM careers. Amazing teachers have the skills to make change happen, and they can inspire both genders equally.