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STC meeting highlights the importance of role models in encouraging STEM diversity

Though there has been progress increasing the number of girls choosing to take STEM subjects later in education, there is still work to do, and role models could be part of the answer

Increasing the number of female role models in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) education could lead to improved participation of girls in these subjects across the pipeline.

As part of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee’s (STC) inquiry into the lack of diversity in UK STEM, the Committee heard evidence from a number of education-related witnesses, including Jasper Green, subject lead for science at the education inspector, Ofsted, who stated that while there is slight progress when it comes to the number of girls choosing STEM subjects, that progress is very slow.

As part of Ofsted’s recent reviews of the level of participation of girls in STEM subjects in England and across the UK, it found certain subjects across the educational pipeline have different levels of participation of girls – for example, physics A-levels in 2021 were made up of 23% female students, and in A-level computer science, only 15% of entrants were girls. Green also said the participation of girls in computer science has only increased by 6% since 2017, and only by 2% across the same period of time for physics.

It can be difficult to discern the reasons behind the lack of representation of girls in STEM subjects, although many possible reasons have been cited over the years, including girls not seeing any examples of people like them taking part in STEM careers, and stereotypes about the types of people in STEM careers and what these jobs involve.

Athene Donald, master of Churchill College and professor emerita of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge, explained girls and ethnic minorities deselect themselves from certain subjects because of a lack of role models early on in their school careers, as the “message that society gives” is that scientists and other STEM professionals are white males.

“There is evidence to show that if you are black or a woman, you do not see yourself fitting in, and some of the problems we see in later years arise because girls and some ethnic minorities, although not all, have already thought, ‘I don’t belong and I don’t fit in’,” she said.

Those giving evidence at the inquiry agreed that girls’ ideas about whether or not STEM subjects are right for them have set in way before they reach the ages to decide which subjects to continue with, making it important to start making interventions early in the pipeline to prevent these biases from forming.

Is STEM too hard for girls?

Past research has found one of the reasons girls choose not to study STEM subjects is because they have a perception that STEM subjects are “too hard”.

Claire Crawford, research fellow at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, said many studies are now dividing findings about STEM subjects into two groups, focusing on those which are more maths-based and those more science-based, as there are “clear distinctions” when it comes to the gender participation in these two types of subject.

“The research that we did focused exclusively on maths and physics, and we asked girls in some detail – these were high-achieving girls, those who were predicted to get an A or an A* at GCSE level – about their choices and why they might or might not do maths and physics,” she said. “A majority reported enjoying the subjects, more so in maths than in physics, but they also found the curriculum quite content-heavy.”

Similarly, Athene Donald, master of Churchill College and professor emerita of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge, said that studies in the US found girls as young as six already have the perception that someone has to be “really smart” to take part in STEM subjects, something they did not believe girls were capable of.

High-achieving girls still believe they will perform poorly in STEM subjects, despite the fact that in many cases the few girls who do take these subjects outperform boys. In 2021, girls taking A-level and GCSE computing achieved higher grades than boys.

Clare Hayes, deputy head of Hyndland Secondary School in Glasgow, polled girls coming out of a recent physics exams and found that even a student who had never scored below 90% did not think she had done well.

“There is an extreme lack of confidence in what they are doing,” she said. “But a conversation – a bit of inspiration, a bit of nurture – can persuade that young person they have performed exceptionally well and should maybe consider this as a career path. That is something we have to work with young people on: to provide the role models, looking at former pupils who have been very successful and getting them to come and share their experiences with young people. We think that tips the balance for us.”

Are teachers and parents the problem?

Parents can play a huge role in the educational choices children make, meaning their own biases and misconceptions about certain subjects can interfere with whether or not girls choose to study STEM subjects for GCSE, A-level and beyond.

The unconscious biases of teachers can also play a part in perpetuating societal stereotypes, and while Donald of Churchill College does not believe teachers actively discourage girls from pursuing STEM subjects, they may be contributing to girls’ decisions to avoid these subjects subconsciously if they are not aware of, and actively trying to counter, the misconceptions girls have about these subjects from a young age – going forward, more should be done to avoid unconscious bias in teachers, both surrounding a child’s gender and background.

Part of the discussion highlighted the work Ofsted is doing to improve the lack of diversity in STEM – Ofsted’s Green explained Ofsted has found a number of “gaps” in the delivery of STEM subjects in early years education as part of the Ofsted Education Inspection Framework (EIF), and said work needs to be done to ensure a “coherent journey” for pupils leading up to Key Stage 1.

He also stated that once more research had been put into what “good early years education looks like” when it comes to STEM, teachers will need to be given the appropriate skills, and it will need to be ensured that teachers properly develop curriculums that cover the important things children need to learn about STEM at this age.

This means that by the time students reach 16 and are making decisions about A-levels and beyond, their choices about what subjects to take are more informed.

Read more about girls and STEM

Donald also said the lack of STEM qualifications among primary school teachers is a “problem”, and that ongoing professional career development is important for teachers if more diverse groups are to be encouraged into STEM subjects – especially as it is less likely for teachers in schools from poorer socio-economic backgrounds to have access to resources helping them to deliver STEM subjects.

There is currently an ongoing government push to train teachers to deliver subjects such as computing, with many teachers in the past claiming they do not feel they are fully capable of teaching concepts such as coding, despite the growing need for digital skills.

Mark Turner, headteacher of Skipton High School for Girls, claimed having a teacher with a background in the subject matter they are teaching can make a difference on whether or not their pupils pursue STEM subjects later in the pipeline.

While his school is lucky enough to be in a good position when it comes to qualified teachers, he has found from past experience that recruitment can be difficult because candidates need to have both a well-qualified background in their subject area and the ability to teach well.

“[Specialists] are often better at engaging with a lot of the resources that are out there, such as from some of the support groups, whereas non-specialists probably focus more on just getting the subject knowledge to be able to deliver that to the students,” he said. “Therefore, some of that additionality, which is critical in keeping GCSE students that want to study A-levels, can get lost.”

What’s being done?

Some of the suggestions made to improve diversity in STEM included making sure more female scientists are discussed as part of the curriculum – there are currently no female scientists named in the science curriculum – as well as ensuring visitors from a variety of backgrounds come into schools to talk about their career progression to act as role models and help dismantle stereotypes.

Role models are not the be-all and end-all to solving the problem, said Donald, but having people from STEM careers share their experiences with students could make a difference to the number of girls who then choose STEM later on.

“People from industry can really do good things by going in and talking about their day job,” she said. “An academic might not be the right person at all. We should think about who gets involved with those programmes and try to make it easier to do that. That also applies to work experience.”

Some of the teachers who took part in the STC meeting said interventions they already have at their schools include showing the pupils videos of ex-students who have gone on to take part in STEM careers, taking students on relevant school trips and giving them the chance to talk to past students about their progression through education and into a career.

Hyland Secondary School’s Clare Hayes said Hyland’s pupils all have 20-minute careers meetings, and take part in the My world of work website, which focuses on what children are good at and encourages them in that direction.

“We absolutely have to make sure young people and their parents are fully aware of what they are good at, so that they make an informed choice about the subjects they would like to pursue,” she said. “If they have that kind of career path in mind, which they can get if they have identified their skillset, then we are more likely to get young people coming into [STEM].”

But schools can’t tackle these issues alone – the government and the STEM sectors should be helping to develop initiatives and interventions in partnership with schools to help encourage more girls and other underrepresented groups into STEM subjects and later STEM careers.

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