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Dr Jessica Wade asks, "why is getting girls into STEM still an issue, and what can we do to change things?"

It’s a well-known statistic that the numbers of girls studying physics, computing and further maths at high school in the UK is really low. However, this is not a STEM issue—girls make up half of chemistry A-Level students and outnumber boys in biology. But only one in five physics A-Level students are girls, and half of all state schools don’t have any at all.

After almost 20 years of research, the IOP’s report Opening Doors documented their work with schools across the UK to identify and address gender imbalance within physics. What they identified should come as no surprise—gender bias is not confined to science labs. Schools with the lowest numbers of girls in physics have the lowest numbers of boys in modern languages and art.

The traditional approach of just talking to girls about physics is not enough, nor are visits from one-off high achieving role-models, patronising poster displays or renaming a lab after a famous woman in science. To have a real and sustained impact on the number of girls in physics, you need to involve the whole school and, crucially, the girls’ parents.

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Join up, evaluate and report on outreach

In 2016, the Royal Academy of Engineering estimated that there were more than 40 engineering bodies and over 300 independent providers of ‘STEM activities’. Despite this enthusiasm (and considerable financial investment), diversity within STEM at school has barely changed. Less than 5 % of public engagement budgets are spent “finding out what works”.

So scientists/engineers/learned societies: instead of swamping teachers’ inboxes with more campaigns, competitions and initiatives, work with each other to provide joined up opportunities that complement the school curriculum, as well as reporting publically when things don’t work.

Respect teachers more

Between 2011 and 2016, the number of school students grew by nearly 500,000—but the number of specialised science teachers didn’t change. Teachers are important—if you ask scientists what their motivation to become a scientist was, more often than not they’ll cite a teacher.

Being able to appreciate the beauty of physics or maths requires effort from both the teachers and the students. The UK has very few qualified mathematicians, physicists or computer scientists teaching in schools. Two in five physics teachers and one in five maths teachers have no degree in the subjects, and they are both on the UK’s shortage occupation list.

The government’s solution was a fast-track graduate teaching programme called Teach First—but almost two-thirds of the students drop out within the first three years of their job. Young people can see through non-specialist teachers who have been sweet-talked into covering physics classes, and if you can only study three A-Levels, why would you choose something even your teacher wasn’t comfortable with?

Why don’t scientists want to teach? Well, teaching is tough—in 2015, more than 61 % of science teachers had considered quitting—and physics graduates are so in demand that they can be picky about where they work. In the UK, we just don’t put enough value on the teaching profession. In China, where teachers are considered as highly skilled as medical doctors, they have no such shortage.

We all need to celebrate our teachers—pay all teachers more, support them into evidence-based subject-specific professional development and provide support for the administrative tasks that drain their enthusiasm. Universities and widening participation teams can play a significant role in encouraging our science graduates to inspire the next generation.

There are more scientific careers than just medicine

Alongside being inspired by what they see on screen (in the 2018 list of primary school children’s top career aspirations, sportsman/woman and social media star came out in the top 10) the number one influence for young people is still their parents. Parental advice is often out-of-date, spreads their own anxiety (particularly in maths and science) and embeds their own unconscious bias about their children’s future careers. The fast-paced world of science and technology careers is intimidating for teachers, too, who are dealing with new GCSEs, A-Levels, and trying to offer advice on jobs in industries that change every day.

Parents who announce with pride that they have “always hated physics” can have long-lasting influences on the subject choices their children make. Physics A-Level doesn’t only get you in to straight physics degrees, but is essential for all disciplines of engineering as well as material science, computing and maths. Physics graduates are sought-after in the gaming industry, software development and finance.

It is no shock that chemistry A-Level is 50:50 boys and girls—it is the only subject required for medicine, which is one of the most popular careers that parents force their children into. Businesses are terrified about the lack of skilled candidates (61 % struggle to fill high-skilled jobs, and we rely heavily on international students and workers), and parents/teachers could start to think about where young people can contribute.

Instead of targeting outreach to children and young people, scientists, engineers and tech-experts could target their efforts toward teachers and parents. Invite parents to lectures, work with community groups not classrooms and always make sure to speak to staff if you’re visiting a school. EY are running parentaships, careers workshops for parents and their children, and STEM Learning run “STEM Insight”, which offers teachers placements in industry.

Science and maths A-Levels don’t just help you become a scientist or mathematician

Businesses are terrified about the lack of skilled workers. Science and maths at school will help young people throughout their lives, irrespective of where they end up. From the ability to analyse data sets to the conceptual thinking involved with designing an experiment, the skills you pick up apply to almost every career. We’re living longer, and careers are becoming increasingly non-linear, so you never know when it might be useful.

Subjects like science and maths help interpret big numbers and statistics, which could stop us from being tricked into believing the meaningless lies of politicians.

Update your opinions about learning

Universities are dynamic and interdisciplinary centres of research and learning. When you choose to study a subject like physics, you’ll work with mathematicians, chemists, bioengineers—you name it. If you are interested in a subject you can walk across campus and talk to someone about how to work together. Visit your local university, explore their labs and lecture theatres, and rethink the advice you give young people. Research different routes into science and engineering—whether it is an apprenticeship with Google, the Dyson Institute or becoming a cyberspace expert with the RAF, not everyone goes to university.

The most successful scientists and engineers are the ones who work across disciplines, programming languages and continents to design experiments and test new theories. As some jobs become automated, the most successful humans will be the collaborative and communicative ones.

Real models, not role models

For too long we have put scientists and engineers on a pedestal—the high achieving isolated geniuses who work long hours and have no social lives. Enter any research centre or engineering office and you’ll see that is not the case—successful teams are diverse, full of ages, races, sexualities and disabilities.

We’ve come a long way in getting scientists and engineers better represented on television, but we can’t expect that to change aspirations overnight, and the kids who become scientists and engineers might be slightly more introverted.

If you are a teacher, instead of using lessons to speak about the mega-successful scientists who are tipped-to-be the next Nobel, seek out people with more interesting stories to tell. Don’t think kids need a “professor” to be impressed—they are more likely to connect to early career researchers who they have more in common with.

Share the journeys of coders, techies and earth scientists who are changing the world. Find people whose careers have just begun, who can speak with authenticity and honesty about what they do and why they do it. Take a look on Twitter to find speakers in your local area, or use the new platform “500 Women Scientists”.

If you are a scientist or engineer, “lift others as you climb”. Offer speaking opportunities to your juniors, and nominate them for prizes, TED talks and TV opportunities.

As Julia Higgins wrote in a letter to the Guardian (3 March 2018) “We all have a role to play in tackling the barriers that girls face”. Working collectively, we can challenge the gendered stereotypes that are holding young people back. Then we can waste less time talking about “girls in STEM” and more time doing awesome science, building great robots and saving the planet.

If you want to read more about the challenges and recommendations:

In Conversation: Getting Girls Into STEM takes place at the Museum of Science and Industry on Thursday, March 8. Find out more and book your free ticket here.

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