Ground STEM in the real world to fix the gender imbalance

Josh Brown Open University

Girls outperform boys at GCSE level at school,  including within STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). But then, before college, something curious happens: The number of girls taking A-levels in STEM subjects drops off, especially in physics and maths. This is then reflected both at university and in the workplace, where 66.2% of men and 47.4% of women graduates of engineering and technology degrees achieved careers in engineering and technology.

Even though girls show they’re capable of succeeding in STEM subjects at GCSE level, they lose out on the economic a career rewards offered by STEM jobs, which tend to be high paying with good options for progression. Five years out of university, women with a degree in maths are earning 13% more than other graduates. This increases to 20% for women with economics degrees.  If society is serious about reducing the gender pay gap, one step we should take is to encourage women into these positions, which would allow more women to have high-earning careers.

Society discourages girls from learning STEM subjects

As little girls, pupils will be pushed and pulled by their own desires and those of their teachers, parents and peers. They will be influenced by social norms: what they perceive they are expected by society to do. Due to this, they will look at what their peers do and engage with subjects where they feel they belong. Since many girls perceive STEM and especially physics and maths to be male dominated, they are put off. They don’t appear to want to study maths or physics partly because there would be few of their peers in the class. This forms a vicious cycle, which can be hard to break, but the focus needs to be on what will motivate girls to study STEM. Perhaps the only way to break this cycle is to get more girls into classrooms, universities and jobs to change the existing social norms.  

Making STEM subjects more appealing to girls

It has been found that STEM courses seem abstract to girls and disconnected from the things they care about. They are instead attracted to courses which directly relate to the world, humans or animals. Often in maths heavy courses, there is a lot of material to cover, so teaching focuses on the content and not the context the material is relevant to. This is exacerbated by exams, which only test mathematical ability. These exams incentivise rote learning and discourage teachers from linking the science to real life.

Ways to get more girls into STEM

An effort must be made to take STEM courses out of the abstract and emphasise the real-life effects when working with these subjects. By providing context, it allows girls to make the connection between the abstract maths and consequences in the world around them. It can provide a framework to build real knowledge and incentivise engagement with a subject rather than just memorisation.  

Girls at school could be exposed to facts such as women who have been inventors, laboratory scientists or worked in the technology industry.  For example, they could be taught about women engineers who designed sewers and sanitation systems that saved millions of lives due to reduction in infectious diseases. When teaching students about the maths necessary to design such a system, the positive consequences could be highlighted. When the larger context is made clear it seems to engage more girls. To get more women in STEM jobs, schools should listen to what students want and adapt. Making implicit the real-life effects of what a career in STEM could achieve may be the key policy to a more gender-balanced sector.