Are we facing a national shortage of girls studying STEM subjects? As of last year, only 22% of A level physics entries comprised of girls, with this percentage being even lower for computer science at 11.8%. The lack of girls choosing STEM subjects at school is contributing to an extremely low percentage of women in the STEM workforce, meaning that many women are missing out on higher paid jobs (a recent review found that women with a maths degree earned 13% more than other female graduates). So, what contributes to this disparity and what can parents and teachers do to help alleviate it?
What Does the Research Say?
Recent research sought to investigate how much impact a student’s friendship group affected which subjects they preferred. 4,998 students were surveyed twice in the school year. The researchers found that at the beginning of the year, 19% of girls recorded a STEM subject as their favourite, in comparison to 21% of boys. However, by the end of the year much larger differences had emerged, such that 20% of boys, but only 15% of girls indicated a STEM subject to be their favourite.
This disparity was thought to have occurred because boys, who are seen as more likely to prefer STEM subjects to begin with can then be further influenced to take such subjects, because their friends who are boys do so. The reverse outcomes were found for girls, who are perceived as having a lower probability of liking STEM subjects already and hence more likely to be further influenced by their friends, who do not have a preference for STEM subjects. This therefore increases the disparity between the genders.
The researchers also found that girls’ preference for STEM subjects is affected by their classroom peers. If more girls in the class prefer STEM subjects, then this encourages other girls to display such a preference, as they feel less uncomfortable violating gender norms.
You can find more reasons to choose your friends wisely on this blog.
How Can We Encourage More Girls to Study STEM subjects?
Research has proved that, if we are going to encourage more girls to study STEM subjects, we need to encourage groups and classes of students who feel that they belong there. So how can we make girls more comfortable with pursuing STEM subjects?
Recent research has shown that there is very little difference in boys’ and girls’ average abilities in STEM subjects. However, despite this, many parents continue to believe that to succeed in maths their daughters must try harder than their sons. They also tend to consider maths to be more important for boys than girls.
It is imperative that we remove such stereotypes, as if girls are constantly exposed to such views from a young age, they come to believe that STEM subjects are not suitable, nor will they excel in them and hence they are deterred from taking them. To read more about the power of expectations, click here.
Give Girls Positive STEM Role Models
Research has demonstrated that when girls are exposed to same-gender role models (for example advanced peers, professionals and professors in STEM subjects), their self-concept in STEM, attitudes towards STEM and motivation to pursue STEM careers increase. This is because seeing another woman be successful gives girls someone to identify with and proves that women can achieve in STEM subjects. This slideshow lists 20 inspiring women in STEM, but there are many more out there.
Build Girls’ Confidence
Recent research has suggested that girls underperform in tasks in which they have to “think like scientists”, as they have pre-conceived notions that this is a masculine trait and one that relies on natural ability. To combat this, we need to reconfigure their views on what it means to be a scientist, with a more accurate emphasis on the importance of trial-and-error and where setbacks are central to scientific advancement. To find out more on how to help students develop a growth mindset, check out our handy guide page.
Increasing the number of girls who choose to study STEM subjects at school is the first step in reducing the STEM gender gap in the workplace. If we can urge parents to avoid outdated stereotypes around these subjects, give girls positive STEM role models and show them that they can achieve in STEM subjects, then hopefully more girls will take and succeed in studying STEM subjects.
For more information on how teachers can help girls thrive in school, check out our blog Do We Teach Girls and Boys Differently?