From education to employment

I am not ‘totally fine’ that only 16% of girls study Physics

The comments we heard yesterday (28th April) reflect an outdated attitude that perpetuates a misconception that STEM subjects are not for girls. This is a dangerous road to go down, and it is astounding to me that the head of the social mobility commission has effectively written STEM subjects off for girls.

Comments like “physics isn’t something that girls tend to fancy. They don’t want to do it, they don’t like it” serve only to deepen a lazy myth that damages a person’s life opportunities and kneecaps the science sector in this country. I fear that what she is saying is what a lot of people are resigned to thinking is true, that science is a boy’s club. This idea is one that I, like countless others work tirelessly to dispel. 

At the Institute for Research in Schools (IRIS) we aim to change the culture in UK education so that authentic research and innovation is part of every young person’s experience. We do this by; creating opportunities for students to participate in cutting edge STEM research and collaborate with leading universities and institutions while still in school. And we have an offer for Katherine; feedback from girls on our programmes has not been that science is boring or beyond them, it’s been ‘bring it on’! I would be more than happy to introduce anyone who thinks science is not for girls to our fantastic alumni at IRIS.

The willingness from girls to study science is there. I have seen first-hand girls who have seen science as a career for the first time in their lives. We have recently launched our Research and Innovation Framework to embed this practice in our secondary schools and provide opportunities in science for students regardless of their background, breaking down those barriers that shouldn’t exist and capturing their talent.

Our projects are not in isolation and point to an upward curve as the number of girls participating in STEM in Higher Education has been increasing over the last ten years. How can we look at this data and think the desire isn’t there, that this pathway is not for them. How can this not serve to spur us on to provide them with more opportunities!

Science is a fabulous career. A student with a degree in a STEM subject can expect to earn higher than the national average in a career in industry or academia. It is also a global career, where a scientist can work abroad if they wish and learn a new culture. By telling girls that STEM is not for them we are robbing half the next generation of an exciting and life changing career.

We should instead be shouting that science is for everyone, instead of creating barriers we should be knocking them down and inspiring the scientists of the future to get involved in research and innovation to change the world. This work is crucial to ensure that the UK is a place where talent and intelligence focus on the big problems of our time such as climate change, rather than losing it to other industries. 

The laissez-faire attitude towards girls studying science runs against social mobility and instead entrenches a system that unfairly shuts out talented individuals from a career and the opportunities that come with it. While the clamour to disagree with her today is understandable, I hope that this kicks off a conversation about the barriers that girls face when it comes to STEM, and what we can do to support and inspire them. Not shut them down.

By Dr Jo Foster, Institute for Research in Schools (IRIS)

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