Challenging the perception that 'STEM isn't for me'
To mark the International Day of Women and Girls in Science on 11 February 2023, Dr Katy Bloom, Senior Lecturer in Science Education at York St John University, highlights the urgent challenges facing the global scientific community, and the importance of unlocking the potential of women and girls in helping to address them.
We’re facing some pretty tough challenges on a global scale currently: climate crisis, increasing renewable energy sources, clean water for all, food insecurity, creating a sustainable society, the continued threat of Covid-type epidemics and increasing antibiotic resistance. We’re looking to science and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) to address these problems for us. The International Day of Women and Girls in Science highlights the importance of engaging more girls with STEM, and unlocking untapped potential in classrooms across the world.
Gender stereotyping of science
This powerful Redraw the balance video beautifully captures how, even at a very young age, children are identifying careers as ‘male’ and ‘female’. Three (female) visitors to a class ask the pupils to draw a surgeon, a fighter pilot and a firefighter; of 61 pictures, only five were female.
When I ask my new Year 1 ITE undergraduates to draw a scientist, I then question them: who drew a male? Who drew ‘mad hair’? Who drew a lab coat? Who drew glasses? Who drew some lab equipment? Sadly, the majority do! It’s done in a light-hearted way, but we talk about the gender-stereotyping of science (that they themselves fall victim to) and the importance of avoiding teacher bias in the way we talk to our pupils about career opportunities.
40,000 STEM jobs go unfilled each year
Girls’ interest in science is seen to wane about the time they reach secondary school, and the gap widens further as they age. They say that they know that science is important, but they don’t see themselves as becoming scientists, and often the societal prejudice that ‘boys are better at science’ goes alongside a widespread notion that STEM jobs are hard. Yet 40,000 STEM jobs go unfilled each year, and that is a tremendous loss to our economy when we could be harnessing untapped female potential if it is nurtured in the right way. However, the UK remains one of the lowest in Europe for encouraging females into STEM roles.
So, what can we do at both primary and secondary level?
- Prize curiosity. Young children show insatiable curiosity, and it is a joy as a teacher to see their awe and wonder about the world around them. At any age, show them you are a teacher who values inquisitiveness and passion for learning; curiosity drives innovation and new technologies.
- Use strong female role models and explore the stories of women who have made amazing contributions to STEM, even when the odds were stacked against them, or even those who had their discoveries or inventions appropriated or attributed to males of their time, such as Alice Ball, Rosalind Franklin, Lise Meitner, Eunice Foote, and Jocelyn Bell Burnell. This humanizes scientific endeavour, connects to the world of work, shows the development of scientific skills and the nature of experimentation, and how this has changed over time.
- Show the importance of science in everyday relevant experiences; link it to people, and always try to show the Big Picture. Sometimes we get bogged down with the topic, and these connections are lost. Build these into your schemes of work so the links do not get forgotten.
- Check and counter girls’ negative perceptions about their competencies and abilities. Flex your feedback to praise the learning process, not just the outcome. Value working hard, trying something new, learning from mistakes, having a go rather than ‘I only want to write it down if it’s right’.
- Explore the huge number of roles available within the science and STEM communities and challenge the notions of ‘pink’ and ‘blue’ jobs. Be alert to potential teacher and peer bias; any comment that ‘physics is hard’ can lead to girls making life-changing decisions that can alter the subjects they study. A guide by The institute of Physics, Opening Doors: A guide to good practice in countering gender stereotyping in schools, explores gender imbalance in subject choices, and what schools can do about it.
- Use every opportunity within lessons to show a STEM career, and especially those that do not involve living inside a laboratory and wearing a white coat. Incorporate careers advice, visits, case studies of women in STEM, get in external speakers such as STEM Ambassadors.
- Highlight and value the skills that underpin STEM fields and their high transferability, from observing, pattern-seeking, problem-solving, and critical thinking to creativity, collaboration, time management and communication.
We come into education to transform young people’s lives, so let’s build a foundation that inspires them to add to the world around them and continue further on the STEM pathway than they might in the absence of that encouragement.
The International Day of Women and Girls in Science (IDWGIS) will take place on 11 February 2023, an observance established by the United Nations General Assembly to promote gender equality in science, and will focus on the role of women and girls and science in relation to the UN Sustainable Development Goals.