Where Are the Girls in Science? Are We Accidentally Discouraging Girls from STEM?

Wednesday, February 14th, 2024
Where Are the Girls in Science? Are We Accidentally Discouraging Girls from STEM?

We scratched the surface of this vast and multifaceted topic, exploring how gender stereotypes from an early age and a lack of female role models in science are quietly telling our girls, “science is not for you”.  

Just before International Day of Women & Girls in Science, we talked about how ingrained and often-unconscious gender stereotypes impact how well girls are supported in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) subjects. We had an insightful and energetic discussion here at Tutors International about what we as parents and educators can do to raise our girls to disrupt male-dominated careers.  

Why aren’t girls going into science?

This time last year, Engineering UK announced that with the current conversion rate from A-Level to undergraduate study, around 150,000 girls would need to study A levels in maths or physics (or both), in order to reach the same number of male undergraduates - an increase of 115,000! 

We know that women are still under-represented in STEM careers (although there are many studies that indicate it depends on demographics and which scientific discipline you’re talking about), but is that because science and engineering are still considered “boy” subjects, despite society’s best gender-neutralising efforts?

‘Boy’ subjects and ‘girl’ subjects…

Even within the STEM subjects there’s a gender divide: there are actually more girls than boys taking Biology at A-Level in the UK, and Chemistry has a pretty even split, but far more boys than girls take Computer Science, Design & Technology, Maths, and Physics. 

In 2022, Head teacher and Chair of the Social Mobility Commission, Katharine Birbalsingh, told MPs that Physics was not a subject girls "tend to fancy", saying: "I just think they don't like it. There's a lot of hard maths in there that I think that they would rather not do. That's not to say there isn't hard stuff to do in biology and chemistry - there is, but it's not mathematical.”

This comment caused a huge amount of debate at the time, but the general consensus among critics was that it has nothing to do with the maths side of it, and more about the physics. 

In one study in the US, children were offered two different activities from which to choose. The girls were significantly less interested in a computer science activity when they were told boys were more interested in it than girls (35% of girls chose the activity), compared to one they were told boys and girls were equally interested in (65% of girls chose that activity).

And a report by the Institute of Physics (IOP) found that girls are often told that physics is more suited to boys.

Joanna Dunckley Phillips, former Marine Scientist, highly experienced Private Tutor, and now Account Manager at Tutors International, energetically advocates variety in education - explore lots of different subjects and experiences and see what sticks!’ is her proven method of engaging and inspiring scores of students.

“The scientific method is all about being wrong and putting yourself out there. You start with a hypothesis you believe to be true and then go about testing it, often failing. For many students - but girls in particular - the idea of suggesting something out loud in a classroom is extraordinarily uncomfortable. Putting themselves out there, open to failure, getting it wrong - it is the very opposite of their overwhelming need to fit in and not stand out,” says Joanna. “But the concept of boy’s subjects and girl’s subjects - that belief that girls shouldn’t question, shouldn’t be difficult, shouldn’t challenge - that is already ingrained at a much earlier age by our gendered societal norms.”

A self-fulfilling prophecy

A study by the University of Houston showed that gender-based stereotypes about who likes - not just who is "good" at - computer science and engineering can affect a child's sense of belonging and willingness to participate. But in environments where you lessen the gendered messaging, the participation rate of girls increases, highlighted in another report from the Institute of Physics: that in single-sex schools a greater proportion of girls took physics than in coed schools, across both the state and private school system. 

Professor Meltzoff, of the University of Washington and co-director of the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences: "We discovered that labeling an activity in a stereotyped way influenced children's interest in it and their willingness to take it home - the mere presence of the stereotype influenced kids in dramatic ways”. Such information can influence a young person's motivation over the long term, researchers point out, and may deter them from trying an activity or taking a class. 

So stereotypes affect a student’s interest in a subject, which then impacts their ability in their subject.  

“These stereotypes really do steer girls away from STEM. There's this outdated idea that science is a "boy thing," which can really discourage girls from diving into these fields,” says Joanna.

It’s getting on a bit now, but research conducted by Accenture in 2015 found that 60% of girls aged 12 surveyed in the UK and Ireland felt that mathematics and science were “too difficult” to learn and better suited to boys because of their brains, hobbies and personalities.  Those girls also rated parents and teachers as their biggest influencers - but 42% of parents and 51% of teachers surveyed believed the cultural perception that STEM subjects are not suitable for girls. 

What are we doing wrong?

So if gender stereotyping has such a pervasive impact on teachers, parents, the education system, and on our girls' belief in their own abilities, what should we do about it? And schools are all over the gender gap - so why is it still a problem?

It’s such a deeply rooted societal issue, going right back to pre-school attitudes to gender norms. 

Victoria Gibbs, COO of Tutors International, is an impassioned proponent of dismantling gender biases, and merrily dashed off-camera to retrieve well-thumbed books on feminism and education (I’ve listed her top picks at the bottom of this article).

“Even when we, as parents, try really hard not to do it - we still find ourselves praising girls on their appearance and boys on their characters,” observes Victoria. “Then you go into primary schools, and you’ll find - almost without fail - the boys in the construction area with the cars and diggers and the girls in the wendy house or doing art and craft. Children are powerfully influenced by TV, their friends, the toys available to them, teachers, parents, grandparents - and as they get older, music, peers, and social media. All of these influences feed our children a steady stream of gender bias, so the efforts of even the best teachers in our schools come too little, too late.“

The role of female science mentors and teachers

That Accenture research from 2015 highlighted a lack of awareness of career opportunities and fewer high profile female role models in maths and science as problems for young girls. Take a flick through your child’s science textbook - how many generic lab photos include pictures of girls or women? Ask AI to generate a photo of a scientist in a lab? How many attempts does it take for it to generate an image featuring a female scientist? (Answer? Three, in my non-scientific test.)

“Not seeing enough women in science and tech fields doesn't help girls picture themselves in those careers,” explains Victoria. “Schools and society could do more to change this by making learning more hands-on and showing that science is for everyone, boys and girls alike. It's all about giving girls the same push and opportunities to explore and thrive in STEM from the get-go.”

The significance of female science teachers and mentors in motivating girls to engage with STEM fields is profound. Having female instructors in science subjects has been shown to notably alter girls' views on STEM, making these subjects less daunting. They show that women can, and do, achieve excellence in science and technology. Their presence effectively counters outdated stereotypes and fosters an inclusive learning environment.

By pairing young women with established female professionals in scientific fields, mentorship programs offer crucial guidance, encouragement, and a glimpse into practical applications of scientific studies. The results of these mentorships are significant, with participants often reporting greater interest in STEM careers, an increase in self-confidence, and are more likely to continue that study at university. 

How private tutoring gives girls back their confidence

When we talk about why private tutoring can really make a difference, it's all about the personalised learning experience it provides. Educational research brings to light just how effective one-on-one tutoring can be. The groundbreaking work by Benjamin Bloom - the "2 Sigma Problem" - shows that students who receive private tutoring tend to perform significantly better than those who don't. This means that tailored, personal instruction can potentially boost a student's performance from around average to the top 2% of their class.

Joanna: “Teachers are amazing. But when you’ve got 30 kids in a class you simply don’t have the time or resources to create a personalised lesson that engages each and every one of those students. Private tutoring is the ideal. As a private tutor with one student, or possibly two or three siblings, I can get to know the interests and the motivations of each child. I can create the most exciting, engaging, multi-disciplinary science lessons that speak right to the passions of those individual students! We can dive into scientific rabbit holes - with each topic eliciting questions and curiosity that we can explore further. I have the time, space and freedom available to me to dive deeper into the theory and conduct more practical experiments.”

As Joanna explains, the boost in a student’s performance and motivation for a subject comes from the private tutor’s ability to adapt lessons to the student's individual learning pace, style, and interests. Unlike in a crowded classroom, private tutoring offers the space for students (and I’m particularly referring to girls here who, as we know from the research earlier in this article, believe they’re not good at science, and that’s impacting their motivation) to ask questions, make mistakes, and get instant feedback in a supportive, one-on-one setting. This kind of learning environment encourages curiosity and confidence, making subjects, especially challenging ones like those in STEM, more accessible and engaging.

At Tutors International, we place a lot of private tutors as full-time, residential educators, but a great private tutor can also provide part-time support in particular subjects - like science and maths. Using the same principles, tailored, personalised lessons can address specific areas where a student might be struggling, offering targeted support that might not be available in a standard classroom setting. Whether it's breaking down complex science concepts into bite-sized, understandable pieces or providing extra practice with problems, tutoring can make all the difference in mastering difficult subjects.

The challenge of not enough girls in STEM is deep-seated, tangled up in old stereotypes, how we teach, and not having enough female role models in these fields for girls to look up to. To tackle this, we need to roll up our sleeves and work on several fronts: we've got to shift how society views women in STEM, make education more engaging for girls, and shine a spotlight on female scientists and engineers who can inspire the next generation. By creating a supportive space that nurtures girls' curiosity in science right from the start, we're laying down the tracks for a future where the science world is as diverse as the world we live in.

Joanna sums it up nicely. 

“Address gender bias early, teach with passion, and provide girls with visible, relatable role models.” 

Further reading

This really is a fascinating and vast topic, and if you’re interested in it, there are plenty of far more scientific and informative articles you can delve into. Here are just a few for starters that are worth the read. 

And as promised, Victoria’s recommended reads:

  • Do It Like a Woman and Invisible Women - both by Caroline Criado Perez
  • Natural Born Learners by Alex Beard
  • Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth

This article appeared as part of our Linkedin Newsletter, "Educational Excellence". Subscribe on LinkedIn 

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