We need a better formula for engaging girls with science

Mon 17 Mar 2014

Blog by Dr Julie Mills - Principal, Milton Keynes College.  

My eye was caught by a brief exchange in the House of Lords the other day.  The Lib Dem peer Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville wanted to know what action the government is taking “to encourage more women and girls to take up science, technology, engineering and maths [STEM] subjects.”

The answer from the Education Minister, Lord Nash, explained that the government is putting significant amounts of money into STEM subjects and specifically into enticing good science graduates into teaching – the theory being that excellence in class will breed enthusiasm and understanding among students.  While heartily endorsing the sentiment I think we need to look further to close the gender gap in this area.

In 2012 just 21% of pupils taking Physics A Level were female.  That’s according to WISE (Women in Science & Engineering - @thewisecampaign ) which offers a range of similarly depressing statistics including the facts that females account for only 13% of those involved in STEM-based occupations (including health where women are more widely represented), 10% of managers and owners in STEM businesses and 5.5% of engineering professionals.

Now one might think this is a global issue or even, heaven forfend, that girls just aren’t as interested in science as boys.  Well, I can categorically state that that isn’t so.  The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD - @OECD_Edu) reported last year that fifteen year-old girls around the world, outperform boys in science – except in the United States, Britain and Canada.  Here are three highly developed countries which would regard themselves as being at the forefront of gender equality, let alone education, and they’re all bottom of the class.
So what to do?  The wonderful Works for Us charity (@Works_for_Us) runs brilliant events in Milton Keynes where young girls get to meet and talk to all kinds of women in all kinds of careers including those in STEM industries.  It is brilliant to see the moment that light goes on in someone’s head and they realise this is a person they want to and could be like.  Similarly at the College we have women like Claire Gibbs who is Deputy Director of Leadership, Technology and the Built Environment.  Claire formerly worked for Toyota and is an inspiration for those who want to work in technology.  That word, “inspiration” is the key.  Girls need to believe that these careers are open to them and to be encouraged to follow their dreams. 

I have to (like the politicians) declare an interest here.  When I was at school and wanted to study Biology, Chemistry and Physics I was told to drop the last one because three sciences would be “too restricting.”  Instead of Physics I was shoehorned into Home Economics.  Now I freely admit that had my drop scones never existed the world of culinary excellence would have coped, but the repercussions in terms of the careers no longer available to me because of that simple choice were enormous.  Careers guidance needs to be smarter.  It’s an area which is under-used and under estimated.  CBI President, John Cridland (@CBItweets - a former visitor to the College) last year described careers advice in schools as being on “life support” and failing to prepare students in any way for the workplace.  No doubt there are many careers advisors in schools who do a wonderful job but provision is patchy at best and for girls in particular there needs to be greater emphasis on broadening outlooks rather than narrowing them.

Britain has a wonderful history of producing scientists, engineers and technologists and in a fast changing world we really need them today and tomorrow and not just yesterday.  And we need to shout more.  Most people have heard of or even been taught about Crick and Watson, Charles Darwin and Michael Faraday, but what about Rosalind Franklin, Mary Anning and Dorothy Hodgkin?

No, I’m not going to tell you who they are.  Go and look them up, and then tell a young girl of your acquaintance all about them.  You may inspire greatness.

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