Gender equality in STEM classrooms

Written by: Garath Rawson | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

What grassroots actions can we take to increase female participation in STEM subjects? Garath Rawson explains the work of Doncaster UTC with STEM role models, communicating career options, changing androcentric narratives, and working with parents


Science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects have been dominated by male students for centuries.

In 2020, 78,459 students sat GCSE computer science, but only 16,919 of these were female. In 2021, 79,964 students sat the exam, but the number of female students decreased to 16,549 (JCQ, 2021).

Similarly, the proportion of students studying engineering and technology who were make was 81% in 2018 (STEM Women, 2021).

This gender imbalance is problematic for many reasons. First, diversity in the classroom is beneficial to everyone as it stimulates the exploration of new ideas and encourages the discussion of different perspectives which helps students gain a more holistic understanding of concepts. Second, the lack of women studying STEM subjects directly translates to a lack of women in the STEM workforce.

Today, women make up just 14.5 % of all engineers (WES, 2022), and that is an all-time high!

In turn, this creates a less diverse workforce, powered by a smaller circulation of ideas, backgrounds and expertise – not exactly the right breeding ground for innovation.

Schools can play a crucial role in changing these statistics for the better and we can make a genuine difference. There are steps all schools can take to ensure their STEM classrooms are as gender equal as possible.

Doncaster UTC offers 13 to 18-year-olds a range of STEM qualifications. We aim to teach the inventors, engineers, scientists and technicians of tomorrow. When I joined Doncaster UTC, I knew there was a general problem with gender equality, both in schools and the wider STEM sector. As soon as I became principal, my first objective was to actively take steps to change this. We take our responsibility to help shape the industry and offer opportunities to all our students very seriously.

Over many years, I have developed a multipronged and long-term approach to diversifying our classrooms. I have listed below some of my tips and policies, which are the product of trials and tribulations and which I hope many other schools and colleges can replicate in a way that makes sense for their institute. Here’s how we actively encourage women in STEM.


Role models

Across the STEM sector, women are invisible. Sadly, this has been the case for centuries. The inventions and discoveries, made by women have historically been overlooked for many years. This includes the deep-sea telescope (Sarah Mather), the aquarium (naturalist Jeanne Villepreux-Power) and the production of marble from limestone (Harriet Hosmer). Usually, rather than being credited for their work, they have been mentioned in footnotes or penned essays under a male pseudonym. This is called the “Matilda Effect”.

Today’s GCSE science curriculum reflects this historical erasing of female scientists. It mentions 20 male scientists and not a single woman (Oppenheim, 2020), reflecting society’s contemporary disinterest in female leaders in this area.

This invisibility has in part caused female students to pursue other academic subjects. Women are unlikely to study a subject within a sector they feel does not welcome them, ignores their achievements, and likely will not recognise their knowledge or talent.

They cannot visualise embarking on a career path when there are no visible role models. Equally they can feel that their career progression may be stunted and that they may struggle to reach their full potential given the barriers they will face.

Schools can help rectify this by shining a light on the achievements of notable female inventors, physicists, engineers and biologists who have shaped the world.

And there is a huge opportunity to shine a light on women in STEM today, as the majority of the coronavirus vaccinations were developed and produced by women (Guest, 2021). Sharing videos about these role models can humanise their stories, having a real impact on students and shattering any misconceptions they may have.

Schools can also consider their internal role models. At Doncaster UTC, our head of engineering and lead engineer are both brilliant females. They not only help inspire our current cohort of students and challenge any gender preconceptions, but they also drive our outreach work, including regular visits to primary schools to raise the aspirations of girls and their interest in STEM subjects.


Change androcentric narrative

Traditionally, STEM subjects have been discussed and taught through an androcentric lens, revolving around perceived masculine topics including cars, rockets, construction, finance and explosions. While the STEM sector does include these professions and skills, focusing on them exclusively reduces the industry to a stereotype, making it uninviting to many people who don’t relate to these seemingly masculine professions.

STEM is about so much more. As an industry, it covers renewable energy creation and development, architectural structures (both new and ancient), websites, logos and branding, design and beyond. All students will only feel equally welcome in STEM when their interests are equally represented. We need to change the androcentric narrative that suffocates STEM subjects and holds them back.


Understanding career options

It is generally assumed that STEM qualifications open a small number of doors. For example, many believe engineering students are destined to be car mechanics and computer science students will become IT technicians. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

In reality, STEM qualifications can lead to a veritable smorgasbord of careers, from plant analysts to entrepreneurship, medical careers to spacecraft engineer. If all students knew what exciting and multifaceted STEM career options are at their fingertips, more would explore their educational options in this sector.


Work with parents

Sexist assumptions aren’t innate. They’re learned from society and sometimes from family members, even if by accident. It is easy for sexist connotations to fly under the radar during dinnertime conversations or in passing comments. They have become normalised in society and pop culture. This ingrained sexism negatively impacts children and young people. Research has found 45% of people felt gender stereotyping impacted the way they behaved as children and 51% of those said it constrained their career choices and the subjects they studied (Culhane & Bazeley, 2019).

This is why it is so important for schools to work with parents and carers to help them challenge these misconceptions. With strong familial support, female students are much more likely to flourish in STEM while male students may pursue more creative STEM pathways.

Sending regular newsletters to parents, keeping them up-to-date with curriculum developments and sharing stories of key female STEM professionals and students are some examples of ways in which this can be done.


Conclusion

There is a need for change in STEM and we are proud to be helping to lead that change. We work with the Brighter Futures Learning Partnership Trust to share our gender balanced resources and best practice with other schools across Doncaster.

  • Garath Rawson is principal of Doncaster University Technical College. The UTC uses video content from ClickView to support STEM teaching.


Further information & resources


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