STEM careers: A question of equity

Written by: Charles Tracy | Published:
Image: Lucie Carlier/MA Education

Statistics show that girls continue to turn away from STEM career paths – and it begins with the rejection of A level options, with physics being a prime example, says Charles Tracy

The Institute of Physics (IoP) has just launched its Improving Gender Balance research trial. This trial represents a ground-breaking opportunity for schools across England to join us in seeking to ways to redress the significant imbalance that currently exists between the number of girls and boys progressing to A level physics and beyond.

The trial will seek to find and address the underlying mechanisms that result in girls choosing physics at a rate that is five times lower than boys – and a rate that has been consistent for the last 30 years.

They are probably the same mechanisms that result in fewer boys choosing modern foreign languages and drama.

In other words, the imbalance in physics is only one symptom of a deeper problem that conditions boys and girls differently throughout their schooling and leads to them being navigated – either overtly or unconsciously – in different directions at choice points.

For those reasons, tackling this problem is an equity issue: if students are making subject choices based on their own and other people’s view of what is appropriate for their gender, then they are being let down.

This really matters. It matters for the individual, for society and for the economy.

In terms of the individual young person, physics is an important gateway subject (IoP, 2012). It opens doors to a wide range of exciting higher education and career opportunities, so it is vital that we ensure that those doors are not being held half-closed to half of the student population.

The societal benefits relate to the underlying causes. I believe that these skewed choices at A level reflect a system that has provided girls and boys with very different experiences in their formative years – arising from unconsciously (and consciously) biased behaviours of influential adults.

And those differences result in many of the gendered – even sexist – attitudes, expectations and rewards experienced by these people in adulthood. By addressing the unconscious biases throughout their education, schools can play a central role in reducing biases and equalising opportunities.

Elsewhere, it has been shown that diversity within science, engineering and business teams improves innovation, productivity and utility of products (Hunt, Layton & Prince, 2015).

We can only improve that diversity by achieving representative diversity of students coming through A levels (in all subjects).

Furthermore, with 56 per cent of STEM businesses expecting skills shortages to worsen over the next 10 years – with forecast expansion set to nearly double the number of new STEM roles required – we cannot afford to part-close those doors on half the population (STEM Learning, 2018).

Sadly, there are still those who accept – or even defend – the status quo based on different intrinsic interests and capabilities of boys and girls. There is no evidence to support those views.

Girls actually perform marginally better than boys in science subjects at GCSE, with 67 per cent of girls achieving A* to C or 9 to 4 grades, compared to 63 per cent of boys (WISE, 2018).

Yet only 13 per cent of girls who achieve grade A or A* in GCSE physics go on to study the subject at A level, compared to 39 per cent of boys who achieve the same grades (Institute of Fiscal Studies, 2018).

And we know that in the right conditions, girls will and do choose physics.

Specifically, in single-sex independent schools, seven per cent of girls choose physics, six times higher than the rate in mixed maintained schools (1.1 per cent).

While it is true that there are other factors, the equivalent change for boys is from 5.1 per cent in maintained co-ed schools to 18.7 per cent in single sex boys’ schools (IoP, 2018). In other words, the environmental differences reduce the proportion of girls by twice as much as the equivalent difference of boys.

As such, it is reasonable to infer that neither girls nor physics are the issue here – it is the environment within which they are growing up and learning.

Therefore, the best way to improve the chances of girls taking physics is to reduce their exposure to gender stereotypes and biased expectations.

Addressing the cause rather than the symptom is the right thing to do in its own right: it improves their environment, wellbeing and prospects by reducing the biases that they face and the stereotypical expectations put on them. In those conditions, they are also more likely to choose physics.

Of course, it is challenging for schools to single-handedly try to counter the pervasive societal biases that sadly still exist, or to tackle alone those pressures that create this damaging environment.

However, there is action that schools can take to be a part of a solution – most notably by addressing unconscious biases within the school community.

We know that this approach works because in a recent pilot project with six secondary schools (in west London in 2014), we found a threefold increase in the number of girls choosing to study physics (IoP, 2017).

We are now rolling the pilot out at scale by running a randomised control trial across England and we need your help.

We are looking for schools to sign up for the Improving Gender Balance trial. By signing up, you will have a 50 per cent chance of being chosen for a bespoke programme of support with your whole staff, teachers of physics, and your female students.

It is a unique opportunity to join hundreds of other schools across England in bringing about tangible change to a decades-old trend that could make a huge difference to the futures of thousands of talented young women.

  • Charles Tracy is head of education at the Institute of Physics.

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