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How to improve girls’ participation in STEM subjects

By Andy Brittain

Andy has been teaching physics for 25 years, mostly at state schools for boys but currently at an independent girls' school. In a move towards synthesised learning, science, technology, engineering and mathematics are now associated under the acronym ‘STEM’. As a STEM co-ordinator, Andy is passionately engaged in student outreach.

“In our schools, boys are more attracted to physics, computer science and other technical subjects, whereas biology attracts more girls.”

This headline highlights the grouping, batching and dividing that underpins human knowledge, whilst overlooking the blending required for true understanding. A minority of schools genuinely prioritise the cross-pollination of disciplines, but they operate in an educational ecosystem that inevitably draws learners back towards the norm. In the headline above we are looking at two types of batching: division by sex and division by subject. In this article I discuss the use of the collective term ‘STEM’ and female underrepresentation among students of these subjects.

In a move towards synthesised learning, the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics are now associated under the acronym 'STEM'. Sadly, this has not been a carefully-managed advance in educational policy. It's just one of the many attempts to match underproduction of expertise to economic need. Undoubtedly, collective branding is an efficient use of resources, but it also creates difficulties. The persistence of compartmentalised learning, counter-movements and group ambiguities is problematic. For example, many subjects with claims to 'STEMness', are often missing from the list. They include food and nutrition, textiles and psychology – each with a high female uptake.

It's concerning that schools regarding themselves as STEM leaders actually make a very narrow contribution. Girls’ schools should be very proud that female medical students are now greater in number than their male counterparts. But unfortunately, this is often regarded as sufficient by private schools – attended by about 7% of all pupils, but producing over a quarter of medical students. They are not strongly motivated to promote other STEM areas with low female representation – even alternative medical roles. When asked, headteachers claim that they are actively supporting both the women's movement and STEM by populating medical schools. They are, however, simply coasting along with a new, and unstable, equilibrium. We should note that aspiring medics also boost the 'A' level numbers in chemistry and biology, but few female students are seriously looking to these for alternative career paths. It's disheartening that so many scientifically-capable girls are avoiding physics as an additional 'A' level, but physics, computing, and design & technology are of no advantage to medical applications. Careers across the breadth of STEM are actively undermined by fixating on one vocation. The removal of “medical doctor” from the STEM collective is a logical step. It will be independently successful. Much of the above applies to all schools but many doctors are privately educated – with technical STEM subjects like Information and Communication Technology (ICT) having greater representation in the state sector.

The STEM brand also creates problems in the staff room. Many 'unbranded' academics resent being on the outside of this interdepartmental bloc. One reaction has been the establishment of alternative groupings such as SHAPE (Social sciences, Humanities, Arts for People and the Economy). Those who fall under the SHAPE banner may regard themselves as sidelined by STEM and actively work against STEM initiatives. This is concerning, especially considering that the majority of the British workforce has a background in SHAPE. It's also a disheartening attitude to find in girls’ schools, where the “balanced curriculum” may be cited as a limitation to STEM advances. It is never explained whether “balance” refers to equality or equity. Equality would indicate that students are given the same exposure to all areas of study, whereas equity would address uptake deficiencies. Management attitudes to these options can be anticipated by observing that the leadership team in any randomly selected non-specialist school will be dominated by SHAPEs.

I haven’t the space to discuss all of the institutions that, along with schools, maintain the status quo in the UK, but this is where STEM's difficulties really lie. Unless there is an independent increase in the uptake of girls, and other underrepresented groups, across the full breadth of STEM, there is unlikely to be any sincere support in schools. Despite passionate claims to the contrary, schools change very little in response to internal pressure. Schooling is more likely to respond to wider social change, rather than be the catalyst of change itself. Yet STEM organisations continue to use the piecemeal approach of direct student engagement as their primary methodology. They employ the term “underrepresented” to target their projects to student subgroups but, in truth, this phrase is as woolly as the term STEM itself. Independent schools, for example, are often expressly excluded from outreach programmes, but private school girls are underrepresented in many STEM disciplines.

A high-profile social movement is required with sincerely-held beliefs, focus and political pressure – and the media needs to be behind it. Unfortunately, genuine advances in STEM relate to systems rather than individuals. Hyper-personalised issues are much better at gaining traction. But we are unlikely to find many girls suffering from a 'physics deficiency', and mainstream media is reluctant to get behind anything other than cosmetic social change. Furthermore, real (as opposed to media) scientists are still widely viewed as separate, elite, unreachable, and over-intelligent – but nonetheless essential. Social ambivalence leads to suppressed resentment that communities display in strange ways – even against their own interests.

Moving forward, the most productive way to gain support for STEM within schools is a well-managed Critical Thinking programme. It's already taught as a supplementary lesson but it often uses poorly-conceived Schemes of Work. In addition, the teachers that deliver it are seconded from a variety of departments, have no commitment to its content, and don’t realise its importance. The Nobel Prize Outreach Group’s endorsement of Scientific Critical Thinking is a movement I am fully behind. We shouldn’t expect to make direct change in schools – but we can break the institutional cycle by encouraging rational thought and moving towards a new headline:

“In our schools, students are all aware how they can each contribute to society. They recognise that boundaries to knowledge are spurious and they can see where improvements are needed.”

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