How can we help more girls to study STEM subjects?

Work to increase the number of girls studying STEM subjects, science, technology, engineering, and maths, is bearing fruit.

An analysis by software company Exasol has shown that the percentage of female students studying STEM-related subjects at A-level rose from 6.5% to 11.8% in the last five years alone.

The news comes after several government and industry initiatives to make STEM subjects more attractive to girls and to encourage them to follow careers in the area. The work is critical in helping the UK bridge the current skills gap in jobs that require STEM subjects.

So, while we in the field of maths and science are heartened by these positive moves, there is still much to be done.

When it comes to GCSEs and A levels, there is still a disproportionate number of male students studying STEM subjects. Of the students sitting exams in the subjects, 57% are boys.

So, what can we do?

There are several ways we can encourage more girls to study STEM subjects. We can:

  • Combat negative stereotypes with positive ones – Sharing the stories of women who have succeeded in science, technology, engineering, and maths helps them visualise themselves working in the subjects. If they can see it, they can be it.

Recent research by the University of New South Wales in Australia showed that girl and boys have similar grades in STEM subjects, but girls fall prey to stereotypes that they aren’t good at maths or that there is too much competition from boys in STEM classes.

Studies of all-girl schools also found those girls were 85% more likely to take up STEM subjects that those in co-educational schools.

  • Teach resilience and a growth mindset – Research by Stanford University’s Professor Carol Dweck showed two different mindsets, a fixed mindset, where talents are limited and fixed, and a growth mindset, where people can learn by practising, and where talents improve with use.

That growth mindset is key to building resilience in students, allowing themselves to try something new without stopping themselves because they fear they will fail.

  • Provide opportunities to succeed – Giving girls (and all students) projects they can accomplish, rather than work which is going to make them feel like a failure. This helps to gradually build the confidence which is vital to them choosing STEM subjects at GCSE and A level. After all, we all like to pursue work which we think we’re good at, rather than work which we feel we have too much to learn about or beyond us.
  • Support their STEM ambitions with private tuition – This helps girls overcome negative stereotypes and feel positive about STEM subjects.

How can we build confidence?

Confidence is the key. Regular readers of my blog will know that the building of student confidence is a crucial part of my approach.

A recent survey by the Institute for Fiscal Studies revealed fears that girls will not get good grades in STEM subjects such as maths and physics, and that the work will be too hard for them.

The IFS found that 80% of teachers felt the girls they teach are just as able as the boys but did not have confidence in their abilities.

How do we overcome this barrier? I believe that creating the awareness of opportunity begins at home and is nurtured at school. Private tuition has a important role to play in providing 1 to 1 focus and attention on the needs of the individual. Giving girls access to tuition in these subjects helps them build confidence, resilience and silence the inner critic which is telling them they are not as good as boys.

The truth is, they are. If only they would recognise it!