Stop telling girls there aren’t enough women in science

Name a famous female scientist. You said Marie Curie, right? Can you think of another one? How about a female engineer? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (often known as STEM fields) have historically been underrepresented and that made sense, back when we were trapped in corsets and being told not to worry our little heads about men’s affairs, like owning our own property or being allowed to vote – but we’re not anymore. So why are only around 13% of STEM professionals in the UK women?

For me, this statistic is pretty baffling, but then I’m a bad person to judge. I spent seven years at an all-girls’ state school, a specialist Science College where I was one of the few who didn’t take all three Sciences along with Maths and Statistics at GCSE. I now know plenty of high achieving and often quite stressed girls at Oxford and Cambridge University and plenty studying Medicine, Dentistry and Veterinary Science. Nerds.

Have I just been living in a strange womanly world that doesn’t reflect reality? Well, no. Boys take more STEM-related GCSEs and A-Levels than girls, but it’s the girls who get the top grades. Any arguments that our lady brains can’t cope with all those complicated numbers clearly don’t hold water, so why aren’t girls going into the STEM fields they’re doing so well in at school? Maybe the answer is the pressures they’re under as a staggering 93% of parents wouldn’t support their daughter pursuing a career in engineering.

I find this difficult to swallow. When I was 17, I decided I wanted to study a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing. My school friends’ response was, “So what are you going to do with that?” To be fair, this has been the reaction of a lot of people over the last three years (Christmas is always fun), but at a school where 95% of pupils went to university and 45% into Science or Maths-based courses, it wasn’t surprising that they asked. There were several girls whose parents wanted them to be doctors and I was a bystander to the annual struggle to get accepted into medical school. There were tears, mainly from our teachers.

My high-flying schoolmates aren’t alone as more girls are currently studying Medicine and Dentistry at Higher Education than boys, a far cry from the days before the early 20th Century when women were not admitted to British medical schools. (Apparently, the blokes were concerned that too much mental stimulus could damage the ‘weaker’ sex. We all seem to be holding up okay.)

I have always been surrounded by intelligent, motivated young women who grew up being told they could do anything they wanted to and that’s what they went and did. There’s evidence to support what I’ve experienced: girls do better in single-sex schools. With no boys around, the attention is spread more evenly in the classroom, but there are only around 400 single-sex state schools today, about six times less than there were in the 1960s. Is separation of the sexes the solution to the embarrassing lack of women in STEM fields? Rectifying this definitely wouldn’t hurt.

Although the statistic that 13% of UK STEM professionals are women sounds pretty damning, it’s not the full picture. Some STEM fields have a higher percentage of women than you might think, such as 46% of biological scientists, 78% of clinical laboratory technologists and 91% of registered nurses all being women.

Gender issues in STEM careers are pretty widely acknowledged but most debates around it focus on the negatives, or at worst, descend into a Twitter frenzy. In November 2014, Rosetta scientist Dr Matt Taylor’s ‘sexist’ shirt gained more media attention than the Women in Science, Technology and Engineering (WISE) Awards, which celebrated the achievements of girls and women in STEM fields. Dyslexic 17-year-old Charlotte Kerr’s work to inspire girls to take up engineering won her the 2014 WISE Girl Award. If more young women had heard about that than a man’s fashion choices, they’d probably be more likely to feel like STEM fields are a place where they can flourish.

But there’s a reason why the media is painting such a bleak picture of STEM fields for women. As much as we like being outraged at sexism, we aren’t all that eager to hear about female success. Even when women are achieving in male-dominated fields, we don’t want to hear it. Society still has its own ideas about what girls should be doing and winning a Nobel Prize in Physics isn’t it. After all, what man will marry you if you’re achieving more than him? How are you going to raise a family if you spend all your time in a laboratory? It’s these out-dated views that make so few parents willing to support their daughters’ ambitions in STEM fields. If we dropped the preconceived notions that have always put women at a disadvantage and encouraged girls to pursue whatever career they’re passionate about, the gender gap would close by itself.

But then what do I know? I’m only a woman.

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  • You’re spot on about how statistics can be highly misleading. I also believe that a lot of the hype on these issues come from people who are highly vocal and use diversity as a platform to advance their own agendas – like Anita Sarkeesian.

    The emphasis on numbers has the potential to do more harm than good. A lot of emphasis is placed on getting more women in STEM, but without mention to quality or other factors. This is the same as how there is also a push to get more young people into programming – all great in theory, but as someone who works in software development, I also see an emphasis being placed in the wrong areas; one example being a success criteria of one these teaching programmes being about the number of lines of code generated by their students, when everyone in the industry knows that bloated code is very bad – the risk being that the outcome of the knee jerk reaction to teach programming is that we end up with a generation of programmers who do more harm than good. Rather than addressing the issue of what the programming emphasis is about (to stop jobs being outsourced to other countries), the outcome may actually accelerate it – because employers will realise a generation of programmers who have been taught bad habits is more costly to retrain them to do the job properly.

    Back to gender diversity in STEM, my belief is that there should be more emphasis on addressing the underlying issues related to the issue – two of these being how STEM is taught and how careers can be accessed by people whose families aren’t involved with STEM careers; working class and families in poverty are the first thing that come to mind in this, which would also provide access to many more female candidates to balance the statistics.