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Girls in Science: is it a question of self-esteem?

By Emma Terama, on 16 March 2015

Science-Explosion source openclipartIn recent news, the OECD PISA study on Gender Equality in Education reminded us again of the well-known fact: girls and women are under-represented in science A-levels, university graduates and scientific careers. What’s new, are their survey results, according to which “girls lack the same self-confidence as boys in science and maths” despite achieving high scores. Also, “differences in parental encouragement” seems to “exacerbate the problem”. Considering my parents’ generation this would seem likely, but still? Has the apple really not fallen further afield by now?

Motivations to tackle the issue ranging from girls’ education to women’s careers later on, are manifold. Arguments for gender equality in general are supplemented by economic considerations: education is an investment, so highly educated women should be supported to rise to their full potential and benefit the national economy throughout their working life span (rather than dropping out, or having ‘lesser careers’ due to career breaks). Further afield are arguments for girls’ involvement in STEM to support sustainable development, as evident in recent UNESCO news.

National efforts to address this issue in the UK have proliferated in the last couple of years. Just try putting ‘girls STEM UK’ into google and see what comes out (approx. 12 million hits). According to BBC News on March 5, 2015 “[a] spokesman for the Department for Education in England said there were plans to invest £67m to attract science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) graduates into teaching and the department was backing a campaign to show girls the ‘exciting opportunities’ from science subjects”. Without it being explicitly mentioned, this approach could support focusing on the way science subjects are taught in school, with the aim of reaching pupils of both gender despite possible differences in the way they learn best. Although encouragement directed at girls is a welcome addition, more should be done to encourage fair assessment and discuss the effect of that teaching style, teaching materials and examples they may have on learning outcomes, or indeed girls’ confidence. For example, in physics many traditional examples are concentrated on ‘masculine’ items such as cars and trains, whereas in chemistry one can try out making soap.

As it happens, ‘real world’ examples for physics can be drawn from seemingly ‘less masculine’ areas, like this example from an advanced summer school I attended many years back: the making of mayonnaise was used in soft matter physics to demonstrate inter-colloidal forces in action. It matters how we say things, as is evident in the way Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock and Dr Helen Czerski make science accessible to all through good communication.

Now, I’d rather not start on the ‘differences in parental encouragement’ issue, but it remains a fact that not every girl’s mum will have a PhD in physics in the near future (or, hopefully, ever!). What we can influence though, is access to information, and there is plenty of that out there. If you, or someone you know, would like to find out more about great action in this area, have a look at Science Grrl; Soapbox science; STEMettes; WISE; Athena SWAN. Happy inspirations!

Dr Emma Terama is a Research Associate at the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources

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