Tackling gender stereotypes in STEM


Persistent gender stereotypes when it comes to STEM can only be tackled by a whole-school approach to gender equality, says Clare Thomson.

I recently took part in the Women in Science Symposium hosted by Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge. The morning had a focus on female participation in STEM in schools. It was interesting to note how much the individual contributions converged in terms of analysing the issues and identifying the barriers for girls wishing to progress to A level physics particularly, but also STEM careers generally.

Discussions focused on the undergraduate experience of women in STEM and the value of women being more visible in the STEM labour market. There is evidence that female engineering undergraduates often feel that they are an excluded minority and experience both covert and overt discrimination. However, at the heart of engineering are creativity and innovation, which girls claim they want from a job – but this is rarely recognised in popular discourse around career choices at school.

Making the issues visible is the first step in trying to address them. This is not just a problem for women, but for all of society – what is good for women is good for all – in that it recognises and acknowledges difference as a good thing. It was argued that we are at a tipping point in the dialogue. We need men to notice the micro-inequities in the workplace and recognise processes that systematically disadvantage women.

There was also a recognition that women are not the problem – but part of the solution; so interventions to try and change women, or give them more information in order to persuade them to follow particular careers, are unlikely to succeed. Society and workplaces need to change and then young women will see and feel that jobs where they are currently under-represented might be for them.

The percentage of those doing A level physics who are girls has remained around 20 per cent for more than 25 years. The Institute of Physics has been working on understanding the issues and trying interventions with teachers and schools for a number of years. Frustrated by a lack of significant progress, we used the National Pupil Database to explore some questions that we had. 

It’s Different For Girls (2012) looked at progression to A level physics broken down by type of school. The headline finding was that 49 per cent of all co-ed, state-funded schools in England sent no girls on to do physics A level in 2011 – the equivalent percentage for boys was just 12 per cent.

Closing Doors (2013) looked at progression to A level in a range of gendered subjects including physics and economics (heavily male) and English and psychology (heavily female). We found that the gender balance in progression to A level physics correlates strongly with the gender balance in progression to all the six subjects we investigated. More than four out of five state-funded, co-ed schools are doing worse than average in terms of gender ratios, and we concluded that there must be something about the whole-school environment in co-ed schools which is contributing to both boys and girls limiting their choices post-16 and following gender stereotypes.

We are now embarking on new, government-funded work: Improving Gender Balance involves pilot projects with a small number of partner schools. As part of this, we are trying a whole-school approach to gender equality – making visible the gender stereotypes and unconscious bias held by both students and teachers in their interactions with each other and developing an action plan for reducing their impact.

Opening Doors involves two pilot networks of schools which will be visiting each other for a gender equality audit, with a best practice guide emerging from these visits. We hope to unearth results that other schools can use in addressing these issues.

We know that gender identity is a carefully constructed process and teenagers invest a lot of time in developing this. Information about careers and opportunities for girls in unconventional areas will have limited effect if we do not directly confront ideas about gender identity in the classroom and challenge gender stereotypes. Another strand of Improving Gender Balance will be working directly with girls around these issues and aiming to improve their confidence in their ability in physics and mathematics.

Natural ability is a very powerful concept in our society and often perpetuated in school. We need to encourage all our students to see that they can improve with practice in all things. This is particularly important in physics, where boys who don’t work hard but do okay are often seen as having more potential than girls who work hard for good results, but end up feeling that this is of less value than the boys’ achievements.

  • Clare Thomson was a teacher of physics for more than 25 years and is now curriculum and diversity manager, pre-19 at the Institute of Physics. 

Further information
The reports mentioned can be downloaded online, where you can also find more information on resources for teachers and current projects. Visit www.iop.org/girlsinphysics



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