Possibly the only way to get more girls into science would be to make it compulsory in secondary schools, an expert has argued, after research suggested that half of female pupils dismiss science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) subjects as too difficult before they reach their teens.
The Scottish findings, part of a wider UK survey of nearly 5,000 people (bit.ly/GirlsStem), show that 47 per cent of 12-year-old girls surveyed in Scotland believe that Stem subjects are a better match for boys.
Gijsbert Stoet, a University of Glasgow psychologist who has analysed the research into girls’ participation in science, said that “considerable differences” between boys’ and girls’ interests and career aspirations had remained stable over time. In richer and more gender-equal societies, he added, such divisions seemed to become stronger. He also found little evidence that one of the most commonly proposed solutions – more female role models in science – would make a difference.
“Despite many efforts, the attitudes of girls to Stem – and boys in other domains – are just really hard to change, if at all possible. People try, but no major breakthroughs have been made,” Dr Stoet said.
He proposes a different approach: changing the education system by making it compulsory to study “important” Stem subjects. “That way, children are exposed to them whether they like it or not, and the prolonged exposure will likely lead to smarter and better-informed choices later on,” he said.
Dr Stoet conceded, however, that “this will be politically very difficult to implement”.
‘Missing out’ on talent
The study also suggests that, if government and business initiatives to increase the number of women in Stem careers are to succeed, teachers and parents must do more to encourage girls to embrace the subjects from an early age.
“From a Scottish perspective we are only pooling talent from 50 per cent of our school-age children,” said Lucy Murdoch, managing director for sales and customer service at Accenture Scotland, which commissioned the research.
“With Scotland driving ahead in Stem areas such as fintech [financial technology], innovation and start-ups, the oil industry and renewable energy, to name just a few, we need to ensure that Scottish business does not miss out on the breadth of talent coming through the education system.”
Aberdeen physics teacher Stuart Farmer said the study was “yet another example illustrating deeply ingrained views in our culture and society”.
Mr Farmer, who is also teacher network coordinator at the Institute of Physics in Scotland, added: “It is interesting that the research has highlighted how poorly prepared parents believe they are to advise their daughters on Stem subjects and careers. Why should they feel less prepared advising their daughters than their sons, given that opportunities are open to all? This vicious circle can only be broken by better-informed parents and young children.”
Lindsay Murphy, founder of science entertainment company Be Experimental, said workplaces still displayed a “clear gender bias”. She added, however, that many “fantastic initiatives” such as Women in Science and ScienceGrrl were tackling the misconception that science was for boys, which played “a big part in whether girls think they are smart enough to study sciences”.
“When I am running workshops and doing shows with nursery and school children, they are all so inquisitive and most find science fascinating – both girls and boys can and do excel in the sciences,” said Ms Murphy, whose background is in genetics.
She believes that the years leading up to secondary school are crucial, and that many nursery and primary teachers “really want to ignite curiosity and wonder” about how the world works but lack the support and confidence to do so.
Ms Murphy added: “People can be scared of science, and a lot of children think you have to be extremely clever to be a scientist, when in fact all you need is something, or someone, to spark your interest.”