Girls have to be shown that top female scientists have more “glamour” than celebrities such as Katie Price and Beyoncé if they are to be drawn to science, according to a key figure in Scottish education.
Finding the “stories and emotion” in science will also make it more appealing to girls, believes Liz Cameron, the new executive member for children, young people and lifelong learning at Glasgow City Council.
“It’s teachers who girls see first as their role models,” said Ms Cameron in an interview with TESS. “My role model was my Greek teacher, because she was young and glamorous. That might sound facetious, but I do think it matters to young women.”
There are many female scientists who show the “huge glamour” around gaining knowledge, she said.
Ms Cameron (pictured, right) recalled watching astrophysicist Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell relay an “almost spiritual aspect” through reading poetry dedicated to space travel and the stars. “It’s society’s loss that we have given up the pursuit of education for celebrity,” said Ms Cameron.
“That’s why I think that Dame Jocelyn and Susan Greenfield [Baroness Greenfield, a scientist who has researched treatment for Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease] have got to take the place of the likes of Katie Price and Beyoncé.
“I’m the first person to rush in on a Saturday night and watch Strictly Come Dancing...but there’s more to life than celebrity.”
She also described the renowned classicist Professor Mary Beard – known for her forthright opinions and engaging television presenting style – as the “greatest thing since sliced bread”. The academic, she said, was someone who might help to “get over to girls that there’s a beauty in intellectual expertise as well”.
Many girls suffer from “learned helplessness” when it comes to science, along with a prevailing view that “it’s not cool to be a geek”, Ms Cameron believes.
Science must be presented to girls in a way that shows it is a “really relevant, living subject”, she added.
“Young women are emotionally mature; women work through stories, people, how that affects the world…whereas I think with men it’s the beauty of the equation itself,” she said.
Job opportunities missed
Ms Cameron argued that by avoiding science, girls would miss out on jobs being created locally by a “green-energy revolution”, as well as by developments in biomedicine and the life sciences.
The Labour councillor also told TESS that she supports the national “1+2” policy, which aims to give pupils a working knowledge of two additional languages by the time they leave primary school, even though the current economic climate would make it “very difficult” to realise, she said. It is crucial to tap into the “sponge-like learning” that children are capable of when young, added Ms Cameron, who speaks several languages.
She praised the impact of Glasgow’s many migrant children on schools, arguing that they have a “huge, huge thirst for education” that has dwindled among young Scots.
“Teachers will tell you [that] our wonderful people coming from all corners of the globe to their classes give an impetus to others to learn as well,” she said.
Ms Cameron wants schools to focus more on “life skills” – such as punctuality and appropriate dress. “More meaningful work experience” is vital too, she said, and employers should maintain a series of ongoing opportunities for pupils rather than offering a week here or there.
“I’ve come to see over the years that no matter what your qualifications are, if you can’t present yourself well, you ain’t going to get very far,” she said.
Ms Cameron is “incensed” that thousands of places in further education colleges have been lost under the SNP government, and she believes that this has hit women and people with additional needs particularly hard.
“I don’t believe they’re just add-on, Mickey Mouse courses,” she said. “They’re a way of getting people back into education who are afraid of education.”
Liz Cameron: CV
Graduated from the University of Glasgow in English language and literature.
Taught in further and higher education for most of her early career.
Elected to former Glasgow District Council in 1992.
Served as lord provost of Glasgow from 2003 to 2007.
Achievements while serving in Glasgow local government include helping to secure Lottery funding for the Kelvingrove Art Gallery’s refurbishment and to establish strong links with Malawi, as well as the cities of Marseille and Lahore.
Interests include languages (speaks French, Italian and German), choral singing and shinty.