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Girls’ low confidence in science and maths is threat to STEM workforce, says education charity

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Teach First survey reveals alarming gender confidence gap ahead of International Day of Women and Girls in Science 

A major confidence gap between girls and boys when studying maths and science poses a threat to the science and technology sector, says education charity Teach First.

Research commissioned by the charity found more than half of girls (54.3%) don’t feel confident learning maths, compared to two-fifths (41.2%) of boys, with the gap even wider for science, with more than four in ten girls (43%) not confident, compared with a quarter of boys (26%).

The findings, released ahead of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science (11 February), were drawn from a national YouGov survey of more than 1,000 young people aged 11 to 16, for Teach First, which is calling for more high-quality teachers to inspire the next generation.

This imbalance in learning confidence is a big concern for the future of STEM in the UK, as poor gender diversity will only exacerbate the skills shortage currently facing the STEM sector, says Teach First.

Despite lacking the confidence of boys in STEM subjects, girls outperformed their classroom counterparts in chemistry, biology, engineering and science double award at GCSE last year, with a higher percentage of girls achieving top grades in those subjects. Despite this, fewer girls go on to take STEM subjects at A-level.

In 2020, women made up just 29.4% of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) workforce in the UK, while the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) has estimated a shortfall of more than 173,000 workers in the STEM sector, an average of 10 unfilled roles per business in the UK.

As teachers play a key role in shaping the future for young people, Teach First believes recruiting and training more high-quality STEM teachers for the classrooms facing the greatest challenges is vital to boost the UK’s future STEM workforce. 

Getting more women into STEM careers could help increase the UK’s productivity and enhance its ability to tackle existential issues such as climate change and net-zero in the years ahead.

Teach First Chief Impact Officer Amy Mitchell said:

“It’s deeply troubling that too few children feel confident studying science and maths, with too many girls in particular left behind. 

“Girls are just as capable as boys when it comes to maths and science, but this confidence gap poses a huge threat to the UK’s future, with STEM skills desperately needed to boost economic growth and to help tackle the major problems we face such as climate change.”

She added: “We urgently need an uplift in pay for trainee teachers to incentivise more people to become STEM teachers to empower the next generation, particularly in low-income areas.”  

Sylvia Jolly, a Teach First-trained science teacher at Robert Clack school in Dagenham, Essex, said:

“Championing girls’ success in STEM will not only diversify future STEM workplaces but will inherently bring a greater sense of collaboration that may have been missing from the field in the past.

“Empowering more girls to take up STEM and shine in the field will significantly benefit all STEM scientists. It will ensure that the workforce is empowered to work together.” 

She added: “Careers education and life skills have always been big elements of the science department at Robert Clack School, and helping all young people develop a passion and understanding of it will undoubtedly prepare them for a bright future.” 

Teach First believes that getting more women into STEM can be done by inspiring the next generation of STEM workers from within the classroom, with the charity’s ‘STEMinism’ campaign highlighting the importance of positive role models for girls in STEM subjects. 

The campaign has also called for an increase in pay for trainee teachers to incentivise STEM professionals into teaching and alleviate shortages, with a focus on schools which serve low-income communities where great teachers are needed most. 

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