Girls' confidence key to tackling STEM gender gap

Survey finds top performing female GCSE students doubt themselves - particularly in physics

John Roberts

Survey suggests girls lack confidence in some STEM subjects

A lack of confidence in their ability to succeed in maths and physics could explain why fewer girls choose to take them at A-level, according to new research.

A survey of 300 female GCSE pupils who were all predicted to get top grades (7 or above) in either maths, physics or combined science found that confidence was an issue – particularly in physics.

Despite being top performing students around half agreed or strongly agreed with the statements “I often worry that it will be difficult for me in physics classes” or “I worry I will get poor grades in physics”.

Researchers from the Institute of Fiscal Studies questioned pupils and teachers across 40 schools.

Teachers also highlighted girls’ confidence as an issue.

The IFS said that 80 per cent of teachers questioned agreed or strongly agreed that “these girls are just as able, but not as confident in their ability to learn STEM subjects as boys.”

Researchers also suggest that the perception that they will be “one of the only girls in a physics class at school or university, or indeed in a STEM job,” is a major factor putting off some girls from pursuing these subjects.

Two-thirds of the girls questioned viewed STEM jobs as male dominated.

A similar proportion of teachers agreed or strongly agreed that “these girls don’t want to/feel discouraged from pursuing STEM subjects at A-level because many of their female peers do not”.

The A-level results released last week confirmed that girls are still less likely to take STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) A-levels than boys.

Despite receiving 55 per cent of A-levels overall this year, girls received 43 per cent of A-levels awarded in STEM subjects.

However the IFS points out this this is not the case for all STEM subjects.

 Girls are just as likely as boys to take chemistry, and more likely to take biology.

The IFS said the most striking gaps are in physics and maths: girls accounted for 39 per cent of this year’s maths A-levels, 28 per cent of further maths, and just 22 per cent of all A- levels.

The IFS’s Rachel Cassidy, Sarah Cattan and Claire Crawford said: “This matters because these A-levels are important routes into studying STEM subjects at university and into STEM careers: an under-representation of women in maths and physics at A level leads to an under-representation of women in careers that use these subjects.

"This is important for society – for example, some research suggests that workplace diversity can aid innovation. These choices also matter for the individuals themselves: having a maths A-level appears to bring financial rewards in the labour market, and both subjects can open doors to potentially lucrative university degrees.”

The new survey of pupils was carried out as part of a wider project to investigate why girls are under-represented in maths and physics, which has been funded by the STEM Skills Fund.

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John Roberts

John Roberts

John Roberts is North of England reporter for Tes

Find me on Twitter @JohnGRoberts

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