Home > News and views > View all

The problem of girls and science

Published: Feb 23, 2015 6 min read

Yvonne Baker

I looked at the front page of this week’s Sunday Times with some dismay to see the headline ‘UK girls flop in science league’, knowing that this will reignite an issue which for me, as a female engineer now working in STEM education, is personal as well as something of a mystery.

Of course, once you look behind the headlines – and the inevitable hysteria, jockeying for position and beating of breasts (excuse the pun) which will result – things are not quite so crystal cut. It is well documented that UK girls outperform boys in many aspects of our own education environment, including in science, while clearly – in PISA – this isn’t the case. PISA examines a different range of knowledge and skills, particularly around applying concepts and skills, rather than knowledge. So perhaps the real question is why we are so poor at inspiring girls to see why science is relevant, important and for them; not – as the Times article reports critics rather scathingly put it – ‘poor teaching in science’ which, as inspection and results show, for the vast majority of schools and colleges, simply isn’t true.

The key issue is not teaching or schools – it is society’s wider views about science and gender that are the fundamental issue, as demonstrated beautifully in King’s College’s work on science capital, now being developed through an initiative called Enterprising Science. In particular, it is parents and other influencers that we need to be ‘on the side of science’ if we are to encourage more young people, and particularly girls, that is for them. And yet millions of these very people are subjected to ‘everyday sexism’ about science on a regular basis through television, printed media, stage and screen channels – which, consciously or otherwise, drip feed us with messages suggesting ‘real girls don’t do science’.

Let me give you a couple of examples.  In last week’s Emmerdale  (OK – I admit it’s one of my occasional guilty pleasures), when a young girl asks Harriet for some assistance with homework, she says ‘I do hope it’s not chemistry’. Funnily enough, I suspect the scriptwriters wouldn’t have dreamt of making her say that about history or art.  A few months ago, the Duchess of Cornwall was widely reported as telling a group of schoolchildren including girls, that she never was any good at mathematics.  How shocked would we have been if she had said that about reading? The film ‘The Imitation Game’, whilst highlighting wonderfully the role of Alan Turing and male mathematicians in breaking the Enigma, completely underplayed the role of women, even effectively relegating the talented mathematician Joan Clark to an administrative role. And let’s not forget the endless reality shows when the host can hardly conceal their amazement when one of the female contestants says they are an apprentice bricklayer or work in a laboratory – ‘ooh’, they’ll say, ‘I never realised girls could do that’. The trouble is that such everyday sexism is rife in our society, with the media capable of transmitting this to millions of people through the simplest of routes 365 days a year, while somehow we expect teachers and schools, in term time and with many other things to do, to be able to magically right these wrongs!

Furthermore, the media continues to reinforce stereotypes and misconceptions that the only route for creativity is through the arts – you only have to look at BBC’s newly launched ‘Be Creative’ campaign to see that. Why does it have to be one or the other? I don’t believe it does, nor does Athene Donald – one of our greatest women physicists.

As Athene says, to see the debate, either in education or in society as a whole, as divisive – arts against science – is to completely miss the point.  It also, I believe, is one of the key reasons why, in the UK, we struggle to convince girls that science, engineering or technology is where they can really make a mark. And yet how can you possibly be more creative, or make a positive difference to people’s lives on a grand scale, than developing life saving machinery to support brain or heart surgery, designing & building a bridge upon which individuals and communities depend for their emotional and social as well as economic wellbeing, or working on technology solutions to enable older people to access the internet easily and so stay in touch with family and friends.

What teachers and parents do need is a wider view of the jobs to which STEM study can lead, along with a clear indication from government and others that these are key subjects and skills with great opportunities for women as well as men. We also need a much clearer priority placed on science within primary education, where – in England at least – changes in accountability measures mean science risks becoming a secondary subject even though it remains officially ‘core’. This is even more important when you consider that only around 5% of the primary teaching workforce have any STEM qualification beyond A level, and many have nothing above a science GCSE. Primary teachers are predominantly female, who may themselves lack confidence in science – and yet, if we don’t capture young people’s imaginations about science at an early age, we know the battle is almost lost.

What worries me about the PISA ‘revelations’ about UK girls’ performance more than anything is that it will feed the tendency of politicians and the media to look for quick solutions, rather than the long-term cultural change that we need (and the power for which only they really have within their hands). So expect a barrage of quick announcements, posturing by groups who wish to gain from these ‘new initiatives’ and others who think they hold the ‘golden bullet’, when what we really need is a national conversation about how we move the cultural and media dialogue about women and science on, in a long-term and sustainable way.