Business inequality, gender gap vector concept with man at advantage. Symbol of discrimination, different opportunity, unequal treatment. salary. Eps10 illustration.

How education can help close the gender gap in STEM

Business inequality, gender gap vector concept with man at advantage. Symbol of discrimination, different opportunity, unequal treatment. salary. Eps10 illustration.Georgina Harris, the Dean of the Faculty of STEM at Arden University, discusses why gender disparity in STEM is so strong and the importance of practical work in schools and exposure to the STEM industry at a young age.

The STEM gender gap prevails. Less than 30% of the world’s researchers are women and this under-representation occurs in every region in the world, from schools, right up to senior professionals. In schools, boys are traditionally more likely to choose STEM subjects and to move on to studying STEM degrees at university. In fact, according to recent UCAS data provided by HESA, only 35% of STEM students in higher education in the UK are women.

Why the gap exists

The gender gap in STEM is not about ability, as research shows that on the whole women and girls outperform men and boys in engineering fields of study, but more about implicit bias and stereotypes. In the UK, many people associate science and maths fields with “male” and humanities and arts fields with “female”. Such implicit bias is common, and it affects individuals’ attitudes not only to others, but what they themselves are capable of achieving.

In PwC’s Women in Tech report, they identified some of the main reasons why girls weren’t choosing STEM topics from their GCSEs onwards, including: being better or gaining better grades in humanities or other essay-based subjects; not finding STEM subjects as interesting; STEM subjects not being relevant to the career they plan to choose; and teachers not making STEM subjects appealing.

Added to this, 53% of girls asked in this survey also said their preferred career was a factor in their choice of A-Levels, compared to just 43% of boys, suggesting that despite thinking ahead, girls can’t envisage a career in STEM roles for themselves.

If you pair this with the fact that the STEM industry is male-dominated and therefore tends to perpetuate inflexible, exclusionary cultures that do not attract nor support women’s careers, the reasoning behind the gender gap becomes a little clearer.

Historically, the United Kingdom has produced some of the best engineers, scientists and inventors in the world. Consequently, the uptake of STEM subjects by international students looking to study here and learn the secrets of our success has increased whilst the take-up of these subjects by our home students has languished behind.

We are already in desperate need of STEM specialists at every level. Even if we ignore the expansion of the engineering and technology sector, we are now facing the worrying prospect of having insufficient engineers in development even to keep pace with those retiring from the industry each year. We know that talented individuals with these skillsets can find higher salaries and greater status in other countries and moreover these skillsets can be used in innumerable other well-paid careers such as business, programme management and finance. So how are we going to plug this ever-widening gap? 

How schools can close the gap

Schools have, for many years, been faced with the challenge of delivering education on a shoestring budget. Suitably talented specialist school educators are difficult to find in mathematics and the sciences. Not all schools have the funding to attract these scarce individuals nor to ensure that every young person receives career advice and guidance that covers the broad and rich range of opportunities that STEM affords. In addition, many schools in the UK have had to minimise the practical, experimental and manufacturing activities that would previously have encouraged students to consider the STEM subjects.

In my experience, learners gain so much from tackling a challenge that, as yet, has no solution; the opportunity to solve a puzzle before anyone else. For a real engineer or scientist, this is intoxicating; the excitement that keeps you working hard and that gives you that rush when you have your first success.

Schools are also locked in perpetual competition with neighbouring schools that drives school leaders to prioritise their league table outcomes over those of individual students. Young people who may improve their prospects by taking a mathematics or science qualification are frequently encouraged to take another subject in which they are more likely to get a top grade. This approach is dissuading young people from studying STEM subjects and disadvantaging those who do wish to choose STEM as a career.

The STEM industry needs more government support; this would involve schools getting better funding so that students can have the opportunity to step away from the desk and experience the wonders of a STEM career in practice. This experience would entice those who are wary of entering the field – especially young girls who see the dominant membership of STEM careers as male. Many students are surprised to learn how STEM applies to so many different industries; it fits into the latest, state-of-the-art running shoe design as much as it fits into the development of the latest disease curing drug. By exposing children to the wonderful possibilities that STEM affords, girls will begin to see that their aspirations to make the world a better place are possible through a career in STEM.

Moving into university

Embarking on a new career is a challenge for everyone. Young people build their confidence through experience at school, university and in industry. As schools have reduced the opportunity for pupils to engage with practicals to save costs, it is left to the university sector and their industry partners to support and nurture our new STEM recruits and give them the experience and constructive feedback that they need so that they too feel welcome and needed.

An essential ingredient of the successful Arden University model to date is the use of authentic assessments and engagement with companies in the development of our programmes and assessments. This gives our students two massive advantages: the opportunity to experience the highs and lows of design and development in the nurturing environment of university and the opportunity to “try” working on projects for several companies. The companies who work with us gain the opportunity to interview our students over the duration of the project and help us to identify areas of the curriculum that need to be strengthened. This also gives students the confidence to apply their learning in the working world, an important aspect when retaining new entrants in the field.

Ongoing projects like High Speed 2 (HS2) will take years to deliver and offer young people high profile and potentially stable employment in engineering and construction for many years to come. There is a real opportunity in projects such as these for new entrants to the industry to be mentored through apprenticeships in parallel with their academic studies. Similarly, the announcement of £5 billion of investment in “Project Gigabit” in the Government white paper “Levelling Up the United Kingdom” means another major infrastructure investment intended to ensure fair access to broadband across the UK which will generate employment in engineering, technology and computing. Not only are these projects great ways to encourage learners to engage with STEM but they also provide intrinsic societal benefit and generate tax returns to the public purse for further investments.

As an engineering and technology community, we need to work together to regenerate enthusiasm for our discipline by nurturing learners at every stage of their education. To meet the needs of our civilisation, we need creative, resilient, enthusiastic and engaged engineers, technologists and computing specialists who reflect the diverse society that they serve.