Getting more girls into STEM: Why it starts with FE

Published: 10 Apr 2017

Idaho National Laboratory

The uptake of STEM subjects among girls plummets going into FE. Making up just 8% of those studying for A Levels in computing, and 22% in physics in 2012, only 5.5% of those who completed a STEM apprenticeship in the last year were female. These figures are disappointing but not a new change.

According to research by Accenture, girls’ take up of STEM subjects in the UK and Ireland is still being held back by a number of factors. Top among them is negative stereotypes, a lack of support for girls in STEM and poor understanding of STEM career options. So how can we promote girls’ increased uptake of STEM subjects in FE?

We must end negative stereotypes of girls in STEM

Accenture’s findings state that the primary negative stereotype for women in STEM is that they see the roles, researchers in a laboratory setting, as being inherently male. The implication is that women either don’t enjoy or are not successful in these roles. Neither of which is true.

Among the 7-11 age group, 50% of girls describe STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) as fun and enjoyable, but only 34% do so in the 11-14 age group. Either girls are collectively losing interest in STEM, or they simply aren’t being encouraged to do so, and so their perceptions of the field are being changed.

Additionally, female STEM students outperform their male counterparts at computing A Levels (76.3% of females compared to 69.2% of males who took an IT related course were awarded A*-C). Girls who take AS Level physics often earn better grades than boys, but are far more likely to drop out after a year.

In vocational IT qualifications, girls made up 38% of the cohort at Level 2 with around a third gaining a distinction, compared with 21% of male students. This continues to support the theory that the issue is not skill, but encouragement and perception.

FE teachers must give better support to girls in STEM

Fifty-seven percent of teachers admit to having themselves made subconscious stereotypes about girls and boys in relation to STEM. Bias is everywhere, whether intentional or not, and it's harmful to female students.

It’s therefore up to those same teachers to reconcile the conflict between ability and perception. The quality of teaching and increased support for girls in STEM subjects is essential for students having the confidence to progress beyond GCSE.

What is required of FE teachers is to engage more girls, in order to ’bust the myth’, with initiatives and practices that address how young women perceive themselves, their abilities, and their images of what it means to study STEM subjects. A key piece of advice, from Science Centres, is to apply a ‘gender lens’. They say:

“Out of one lens, you see the participation, needs and realities of women. Out of the other, you see the participation, needs and realities of men. Your sight or vision is the combination of what both eyes see.”

It’s a strategy to become more gender neutral in our approach to teaching and would benefit both sides.

There needs to be a better understanding of career options

While girls have relatively high aspirations for careers in highly-skilled professional, managerial and technical fields like law, business and publishing respectively, by the age of 14 girls have mostly disengaged with STEM as a potential career pathway.

Students (both male and female) can’t make an informed decision in their subject choices for FE if they don’t really know or understand, what career paths lie ahead of them based on those choices.

Over a third of young people are put off studying STEM subjects because they are unclear about what career options these subjects support. More than half of parents and 43% of teachers agreed that students lack understanding about career options related to STEM.

In fact, almost a third of young people think that more boys choose STEM subjects like IT because they match ‘male’ careers or jobs. Analysts have shown that that can account for the problems of the gender pay gap. Encouraging more girls to get into STEM at this key stage will in turn help to close that gap.

A coordinated strategy to improve inclusivity and educate girls in particular better regarding the career options of STEM study can likely make improvements. When female students are able to engage with STEM professionals, they develop an awareness of an even wider range of career opportunities. This has the potential to inspire more young girls to pursue careers in STEM.

If you’re a STEM professional looking to transition into a career in FE, consider STEM teaching roles in FE with AOC Jobs. It’s our duty to get more girls into STEM with supportive, inspirational and career-oriented teachers.

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