The gender composition of students in further and higher education and has been under the spotlight for the last five decades at both national and international levels. In the last 20 years education research and data collection has probed more specifically into the gender disparities between student choices of subjects studied and impacts this has on career choice. From a situation of significant under-representation, recent figures reflect that girls are now taking 22% more A levels than boys in the UK and are over a third more likely to go to university.
However, despite this success in female attainment, girls remain significantly under-represented as the pattern of AS and A2 level choices of subjects tended to follow gender stereotypes. Girls are still less likely to take STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) at A level than boys. Despite receiving 55% of total A levels in 2018, only 43% of these were awarded to girls in STEM subjects. This is significant, as these fields are important routes into studying STEM subjects at university and thus lead into STEM careers; which will only continue to increase in demand for the future world of work. Given these historic trends, it is no surprise that the STEM sector has struggled with female representation on an international level. According to a UNESCO ground breaking report ‘Cracking the code: Girls’ and women’s education in STEM’, only 35% of STEM students in higher education globally are women.
It is no secret that STEM careers are the future; thus raising the profile of girls in STEM should be on the agenda for all educators. If we do not address this gender imbalance, we will be missing out on the plethora of skills and perspectives that come from having a balanced workforce by 2030 which will also result in a warped view of STEM career gender representation for any future generations.
Since the acronym STEM was first used in 2001, awareness of this gender gap has existed. As a consequence education charities, independent women's organisations and education departments within governments across the globe have worked to raise awareness of the issue; promoting the empowerment of women and girls through STEM related curricula, workshops, and outreach programmes. With many educators fighting for a future that includes female STEM graduates, it is important to consider whether schools and parents are doing enough to bridge this gender gap earlier on whilst preparing girls for the future of STEM.
According to a report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), these gender gaps do not start at university. Instead, the “Bridging the Digital Gender Divide” report stated that this gap is evident from an early age. Much of this is down to societal gender stereotypes which are still prevalent in 2019; often unintentionally reinforced through use of subtle language cues from both educators and parents.
“This ultimately leads to girls’ self-censorship and lower engagement in STEM subjects,” the report has said.
We all have a part to play to dispel misconceptions about STEM subjects and help encourage girls to contribute to areas of STEM, for the benefit of future generations as well as their own skillset. The language of ‘doing’ as a scientist does as opposed to ‘being’ a scientist, has encouraged much more contributions from female students within STEM programmes; due to do the fact that girls lacked the confidence in believing that ‘being’ a scientist is attainable. Eradicating these traditional gender stereotypes and replacing them with modern STEM Changemakers, both male and female will provide aspirational role models for all our students and bridge this gender gap in a subtle yet encouraging manner.
Ultimately, all schools should continue play their part in balancing gender representation within the STEM sector, establishing innovative and empowering learning methods to keep young girls engaged. STEM programmes in schools are clearly working; STEM educators have done exceptionally well to raise aspirations as the uptake of STEM subjects by girls is increasing year upon year in the last decade. Secondary school STEM teachers form an important part of this role modelling process and have been excellent Changemakers and STEM champions from within the classroom and beyond. It is also important to note that, as educators and parents, we develop an understanding of unconscious bias; how the experiences of girls and boys may differ as a consequence of our behaviour and language around STEM and how we can minimise this impact so that students are able to make subject choices without any ‘invisible’ barriers.
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Noshaba is a lecturer in Science Education and has taught Science in the UK and Internationally for 9 years, including in the Gulf, where she has held leadership positions on a pastoral, subject and department level. When she is not lecturing, Noshaba carries out Youth Mentoring projects within Birmingham.
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