Getting more girls into science careers

Let’s start with the good news.  At GCSE, almost equal numbers of boys and girls were entered for Science/Additional Science, Maths, Biology, Chemistry and Physics in 2012, according to the WISE 2012 UK Statistics Guide

But it’s a different picture at A level.  At this stage, fewer girls than boys were entered for all STEM subjects except Biology.  In 2011, Physics was the 4th most popular A level for boys – but the 19th for girls.  According to the Institute of Physics’ report ‘It’s Different for Girls’, there’s been almost no growth in the number of female A level Physics students over the last 20 years. 

Dr Cara Tredget’s recent blog in the Huffington Post reflects on her participation in the Science Museum’s High Performance Festival.  This three-day event celebrated extraordinary women in science and technology, to mark International Women’s Day on 8th March.  Dr Tredget, an inspirational figure herself, works on some cutting-edge automotive stuff as a technology manager at Shell.  She’s been motivated by a number of female role models in her education and career to date. 

I agree with Dr Tredget that fantastic role models are essential – but they’re not enough on their own.  Focusing on a number of high-flying, usually graduate, women won’t address all the barriers to widening participation.  For example, the UK faces STEM shortages at all levels, including science and engineering technicians.  According to the Labour Force Survey, only 27% of STEM technicians are women. 

Failure to get across the diversity of available careers is also reflected in poor Apprenticeship take-up where, for example, women completed only 4.3% of engineering and manufacturing schemes in 2010/11.  Both boys and girls need to be aware of the important roles at every occupational level.

Myth-busting, a role Dr Tredget also talks about, is vital.  We need to do a lot more to identify and tackle girls’ misconceptions about science and engineering. Telling them that science isn’t boring, tough and masculine isn’t enough.  For example, the Science for Careers Expert Group found that girls tend to be put off by the idea of science as a solitary career – when the reality is that multi-disciplinary team work is often vital.  We also need to understand more about the drop in female student numbers from GCSE to A level.

Recently, I was lucky enough to photograph and interview Leanne Hughes, a survey geologist at the British Geological Survey.  There’s high demand for geoscientists not just in the UK but in developing countries such as China and India.  By interviewing women in professional and technician-level posts, I hope to better understand and feedback on what motivated them – and the barriers they overcame along the way.

A female survey geologist using 3D mapping software.
Presenting findings from fieldwork, using three-dimensional mapping software.
A female survey geologist on fieldwork.  Copyright NERC.
Mapping the limits of past glaciers around the Cairngorms. Copyright NERC.
Female survey geologist on fieldwork in Scotland.
Surveying rock types around Loch Ness. Copyright NERC.

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