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This year, for the first time ever, more young women than men took science A Level … but it’s not yet time to celebrate

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 27 August 2019

Emily MacLeod

On A Level results day earlier this month it was widely reported that girls had overtaken boys in science A Level entries for the first time ever. Female students accounted for 50.3% of all A Level science entries across the UK, compared to 49.6% last year. As part of a research team aiming to understand, and make recommendations for, increasing and diversifying participation in the sciences I welcome this news.

As much of the media coverage suggested, increasing participation in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) subjects has long been a national priority. However, despite considerable efforts and expense to make the sciences more equitable, the status quo of science being male-dominated has proven, until now at least, resistant to change – and this year’s milestone represents a step in the right direction.

But a look beyond the headlines shows that it is not yet time to celebrate gender equity in the sciences. Despite overall figures showing that a slightly greater percentage of young women than young men took science A levels this year, the gender gaps between the individual subjects remain stark and troubling. As in previous years, the proportion of female students studying Biology (62.9%) and Chemistry (53.7%) is far higher than those studying physics (22.6%). This is especially worrying given that Higher Education data show that these patterns can exacerbate in related fields later on. Last year just 18% of engineering and technology undergraduate students were female, compared to more than 75% of veterinary science students.

The ASPIRES projects have been working since 2009 to understand what shapes young people’s science and career aspirations, with the aim of making recommendations for how we can increase and diversify participation in STEM. The study, now in its tenth year, has tracked a cohort of young people from age 10-19 in order to understand how their experiences of science – inside and outside of the classroom – influence their attitudes and aspirations. To date, more than 40,000 young people have been surveyed for the study, and we have conducted more than 660 in-depth interviews with 60+ students and parents.

Girls’ low take-up of Physics post-16 is particularly worrying when considered in conjunction with our finding that the masculine representation of science, especially physics, is itself a deterrent for some. For example Celina1 – a working-class student who did not pursue science – told us in Year 13 that “I wasn’t interested in it because I thought, like, girls didn’t do science or whatever”. This suggests that although efforts have been made to represent more women in science in recent years, there is still work to be done both in schools and wider society.

One female student who did go on to pursue physics highlighted the way the TV show The Big Bang Theory’s representation of science implies that physics must not be a “girl thing”, as the main female characters working in science were biologists and the men were physicists. 

Our data showed that 10-18-year sold girls were more likely than boys to agree that they were were not good at science and that they find found it difficult. This was particularly the case for Physics. So, even if more girls are now studying science, we must still be mindful of their attitudes towards and experience of it if we want these numbers to translate into future careers.

Findings from the ASPIRES2 project also show that a student’s social background can strongly influence their experience of science and their interest in pursuing it post-16. For example, we found that students from more advantaged backgrounds were more likely to report receiving support and encouragement from their teachers to achieve in and to continue with science. In addition, those with a family member who has a science qualification or science-related job were significantly more likely to aspire to a career in science. 

In order to understand these patterns our team developed the concept of science capital, using the theory of Pierre Bourdieu. Science capital can be imagined like a ‘holdall’, containing all the science-related knowledge, attitudes, experiences and resources that you acquire through life. People with higher levels of science capital are more likely to have a science identity and aspire to work in science.

Over the course of our ten-year ASPIRES project we have used our findings to make recommendations as to how policy-makers and educators can act to enable more – and more diverse – participation in science post-16. In order to achieve serious change, more work needs to be done to address the perceptions and image of scientists, especially to increase uptake of young women into physics. And ultimately, we need science educators, both in schools and in informal learning environments, to focus on ‘building science capital’in young people in order to develop their science aspirations so that rather than seeing science as ‘for them’ they may see science as ‘for me’.

Photo: The Big Bang Theory Cast – Wallpaper “Bazinga” by Mystic Soul via Creative Commons  

Notes: 

In line with the media coverage this article responds to, only students who identify as ‘female’ and ‘male’ are discussed in this piece. However we recognise that this does not represent everyone, and welcome further work and discussion on wider (non-)gender identity and STEM participation.

Some of the discussion in this piece will be included in the upcoming final report of the second phase of the ASPIRES study. If you are interested in learning more about the ASPIRES2 project please visit www.ucl.ac.uk/ioe-aspires and sign up here to hear about the launch of their project report in the coming months.

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