STEM - Minority report

20th May 2011 at 01:00
The statistics are striking: women comprise only 12% of engineering graduates, while just 2% of girls take physics A-level. Denise Chevin investigates the enduring gender divide in STEM

Emma Ball is exactly the sort of student the science and engineering community is desperate for. The Year 10 pupil from Painsley Catholic College, Stoke-on-Trent, is considering studying physics, maths and chemistry at A-level.

Emma wants to become an engineer. She was enthused by work experience at engineering firm ABB, where she and her classmates got to "design and build" a hydroelectric dam. "It was really inspiring, I'd love to do it as a job," she says, describing the excitement of working out the best materials and weighing up design options against costs. What's more, she's out to inspire others, too. As one of six STEM ambassadors for her school, a mixed comprehensive, she runs workshops for younger students and in local primary schools.

As numerous surveys have shown, girls like Emma are still very much in the minority. The number of all pupils studying STEM subjects may have risen by 10.7 per cent over the last 10 years, with the number of pupils studying core single-science subjects doubling, but the base was very small. And it's had minimal impact on the number of women working in STEM careers, particularly engineering, where figures remain stubbornly low.

Women make up less than 10 per cent of professional engineers in the UK, according to recent research from the UK Resource Centre, an organisation set up under the Labour government to try to get more women into, and back into, STEM careers.

Girls fall off the science and engineering career path at every stage of the route from school to work. At GCSE, the figures for girls and boys studying science and engineering are roughly similar. But for physics, one of the crucial subjects for engineers, the gap is large: in 2010, 66,522 boys took the subject compared with 53,933 girls.

And at A-level the gender gap in physics widens, though interestingly not in other science subjects. The number of pupils taking STEM subjects at A-level has increased by 15 per cent since 2004 and girls and boys are level in biology, chemistry, maths and technology studies.

Computing, though - which has fallen in popularity generally - is almost exclusively male (91 per cent) while physics is 78 per cent male. The proportion of girls studying physics has barely changed over the last seven years.

In its latest report, being compiled at the time of writing, EngineeringUK, the umbrella body for engineering institutions, will say that girls are effectively ruling themselves out of a degree in engineering by the age of 14.

"We found that fewer than 9 per cent of girls opt for physics GCSE - a decision they make in Year 9," says Beth Algood, director of communications at EngineeringUK. And by the time it comes to A-levels, in England, Wales and Northern Ireland only two in 100 girls study the subject that is a pre-requisite to any first degree course in engineering.

In 200809, only 1,395 women achieved a degree in the major engineering disciplines - 12 per cent of the total. And of these, 70 per cent don't go on to a STEM-related profession.

"Engineering is the last profession to become heterogeneous," says Annette Williams, director of the UK Resource Centre. "For students leaving at 16 there is a massive divide. Boys go into construction and manufacturing and girls into retail, leisure and travel." Girls make up just 2 per cent of engineering apprentices.

Some manufacturing companies - including Rolls-Royce and Jaguar Land Rover - are trying to turn the tide and have set up links with schools around the country to promote STEM subjects. Jaguar has established education centres around its manufacturing plants, which are visited by 17,500 schoolchildren a year. But this is not yet translating into more girls taking up engineering apprenticeships, says the company.

Blocking the route

Over the years, numerous studies have flagged up a host of additional reasons why girls don't follow the science and engineering route. Hugo Donaldson, principal policy adviser at the Institution of Engineering amp; Technology (IET), says: "It's a deeply embedded cultural issue. Girls are given the impression that engineering is not for them. It feels masculine - a muddy, dirty profession."

In its latest report, which compares the UK with other countries in Europe, EngineeringUK has found that, for girls, enjoyment of a subject is more important than attainment in terms of a pupil's likelihood to pursue it further. Pupils in the UK are making choices about their future earlier than in other European countries and are making these decisions at a time when they may be least engaged with learning. For example, in Italy nearly three out of four girls will still be studying physics at 18; in Sweden that figure goes up to 100 per cent.

EngineeringUK chief executive Paul Jackson says: "We need to look at girls' attitudes at each decision point - perhaps (the 2004) Tomlinson (report) was right - the idea of studying a broader range of subjects to 18 needs much more consideration."

EngineeringUK identified a "Year 8 dip" in children aged 12 and 13 who start to become turned off certain subjects, with "academic subjects" such as mathematics and science most affected. Meanwhile, subjects with a more overt practical orientation, such as art and technology, are less prone to this dip. Encouraging more practical application of science during this period - whether that be within the curriculum or via extra-curricular activity - can only improve the situation, it says.

Another key theme running through much of the research is the charge that careers guidance is reinforcing gender stereotypes. "There are still issues with teachers' perceptions," says Pat Morton of Sheffield Hallam University, a leader of Women in SET. "Girls tend to get pushed to biology and chemistry; boys tend to get steered towards physics." Girlguiding UK found that while 60 per cent of young women had received careers advice about teaching and 43 per cent about childcare, only 21 per cent had received similar information about the opportunities available in engineering and 9 per cent in construction.

The biggest influence

But by far the main issue seems to be the need for inspirational teaching. Hannah Eastwood became the first woman to win Young Scientist of the Year in the senior category in the recent National Science amp; Engineering Competition. Hannah studied three science A-levels and AS-level maths at Loreto College in Coleraine, Northern Ireland. She says: "It's all about having a good teacher. Teachers are such a big influence on what you do at school; ours really promoted science."

Whether girls study STEM subjects is often down to the drive of the school, says Anne Maingay. Mrs Maingay is deputy head and director of science at Painsley Catholic College, where Emma Ball is one of the STEM ambassadors. Mrs Maingay won the Lloyds Register Educational Trust Teacher's Prize for her success in promoting STEM to her pupils. She has set up a host of STEM initiatives in the school. As well as the STEM ambassadors - who comprise four girls and two boys - she has linked up with a school in Ghana, for which pupils have devised science kits that can be used to conduct experiments with very limited resources. And she has also set up a STEM club where parents come along. "Parents are so influential in careers - you have to work in partnership with them," she says.

The Institute of Physics (IoP) has found that teachers make a significant difference in engaging with girls. Whether the teacher is male or female doesn't matter, it's more about being enthusiastic and putting the subject across in a way that makes it seem relevant in society and less abstract. "Physics is often taught by non-physicists, who are therefore less confident and perhaps think it's boring and scary themselves," says Clare Thomson, curriculum and diversity manager at the IoP. "Girls pick up on that more than boys.

"Girls are more interested in biology - they relate it more to themselves. It's not so clear to girls how relevant physics is in society. We've got to unpack it and make it relevant and interesting."

For Mrs Maingay, text books and exam boards that always talk about the speed of cars for studying momentum, or shooting a gun, don't help and need to be addressed. Meanwhile, the IoP is trying to combat the problem of non-specialists teaching physics with a range of teaching materials that can help teachers appeal more to girls.

Research produced by the IoP in 2006 showed that nearly a quarter of entrants to A-level physics came from just 40 schools - most of these were single-sex and selective. Gordon Wright, head of science at Streatham amp; Clapham High School in south London, an independent school which forms part of the Girls' Day School Trust, says that at his school, as with others in the group, there is a big focus on science. Mr Wright brings in guest speakers, puts on masterclasses and tries to engage parents with science clubs, where they might look at subjects such as the chemistry of wine-making. For him, too, getting more girls doing science is also down to the drive and enthusiasm of the teachers.

Although more girls do well at sciences at single-sex schools, the IoP says that when socio-economic factors are taken into account there is no evidence to suggest that segregated teaching would make a real difference across the board. Neither does it want to see any change to the curriculum in the review currently underway with respect to trying to make physics more girl-friendly. "It's not an issue at that level," says Mrs Thomson.

The long haul

There has clearly been no shortage of initiatives or bodies getting behind the issue. So why the slow progress? "The fact that there are so many different organisations could be part of the problem," says Meg Munn, MP for Sheffield Heeley, a minister for women in the last government who set up the UK Resource Centre. She is currently working with the IoP, the IET and the Smith Institute to produce a collection of essays looking at what has worked. But like others, she is worried about the impact that Government cuts will have on the STEM agenda with regard to girls. The UK Resource Centre's budget from Government has been slashed by 80 per cent. Concern is also being raised by cuts to the careers services in local authorities and the fact that careers have also been taken out of the national curriculum.

That said, there are plenty of things happening that are inspiring optimism. One of these is Greenpower, an organisation that tries to inspire school children to get into engineering by challenging them to build single-seater electric cars which they then race. Emma Tyler, chief executive of Greenpower, says that one-third of entries are from girls - either in single-sex or mixed teams.

A team from Sandbach High School, an all-girls comprehensive in Cheshire, is the current Greenpower champion. Technology teacher Alan Beardmore says that around 30 girls are currently in the Greenpower club, where they are helped by two engineers from Siemens. "Over the last few years it's really managed to change the girls' views of engineering across the school," he says.

Meanwhile, a national schools competition and regular open days with schools and universities emphasising the role that engineering plays in society appear to have paid dividends at engineering consultancy Arup. Sarah Bowden, associate director in charge of outreach and diversity, says 37 per cent of its graduate recruits are now women.

What's clear amid the welter of initiatives and information aimed at opening girls' eyes to what they are missing out on, is that solving the problem will be a long haul. As Ms Morton says: "One of the problems with gender and STEM is that there are no quick or single solutions. We need brilliant aspirational role models, backed up by good teachers and well-informed careers advisers, and regular input from outside organisations."

But as award-winning science teacher Mrs Maingay remarks: "We have a real obligation to keep encouraging girls into science and engineering. Women are missing out on exciting, fulfilling, well-paid careers." And the country is missing out on a much-needed pool of talent to draw from.

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