‘We are wasting the huge potential girls have in STEM careers’

The TES reports that if we want more female scientists we need to start engaging budding talents at a much younger age, argues one educationist.

Barely 16 per cent of engineering and technology undergraduates were women last year. Only 9 per cent of the engineering workforce in the UK is female – the lowest proportion in Europe. The picture is equally bleak in the rest of the sciences outside medicine. Women only make up 14 per cent of the workforce in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), and only 11.5 per cent of management.

The problem doesn’t lie in the number of girls taking STEM subjects at GCSE – as many girls as boys study maths and the sciences and on average they achieve slightly higher grades. Yet when it comes to A levels, significantly fewer girls than boys choose to study maths, further maths and physics in particular. Only 20 per cent of students studying A-level physics are girls, a proportion that hasn’t changed in 20 years.

No-one seriously thinks that aptitude is the issue. The problem, we are told, is cultural. Various studies claim that girls lack confidence or role models post-16, or they think that science is “uncool” and “nerdy” and not sufficiently about people, which also conveniently explains why they find medicine attractive.

Our education system is heavily biased towards verbal skills. The curriculum and testing regimes place a premium on the ability to grasp word and number sequences, on oracy and literacy. It is not very good at identifying and developing spatial learners, who tend to think initially in images before converting them into words. Differences in spatial ability by gender are insignificant and, in any case, tell us nothing about individual performance.

There is, however, a significant correlation between high spatial skills and scientific and engineering ability, according to Project Talent, a 50-year US study of more than 400,000 students. Children who are both highly gifted spatially and verbally tend to do well across the board. But our analysis of GCSE scores in the UK suggests that those who have high spatial but poor verbal reasoning scores markedly underperform*.

The annual shortfall of STEM skills in the UK workforce is, according to the Campaign for Science and Engineering, 40,000. If we could unlock spatial learners’ scientific potential at an earlier age and engage their incredible talent, perhaps we would have more success persuading girls to stick with science beyond 16. And if we could do that, imagine how much smaller that figure could be.

Read more the full article ‘We are wasting the huge potential girls have in STEM careers’

How can schools increase girls confidence to take STEM subjects post-16? Are STEM subjects still classed as ‘nerdy’ or ‘uncool’? Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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