Young girls aren’t pursuing STEM subjects: Why? And how can we help?

We need more girls in STEM subjects.
Why is it not a more common sight to see a woman working as an engineer? Source: Shutterstock.

“Do not believe anyone who uses your gender as a reason not to do things.” – Aly King-Smith, Executive Coach at Clear Works Coaching

It’s been said before and sadly, it will be said again. There simply aren’t enough women studying and working in STEM subjects.

It’s a tale as old as time: women are not being encouraged to pursue certain avenues. Science, technology, maths, and engineering-related subjects are among the routes seemingly closed off to young girls.

Frances James, an engineering student, told Study International: “It comes from the fact that we live in a patriarchal society.”

Jobs within the physics and engineering sector are typically seen as ‘male jobs’. If you picture a car mechanic or a computer scientist or an engineer, you’d likely be picturing a man.

“And at school, you’re never told otherwise,” James said. “As a girl, people are never pushing you into these roles. I was good at physics, but no one ever told me I should be a physicist. I was told I should study English or History.”

So, when does the divide start?

Most research point to A-level choices. Up until GCSE, most students tend to receive the same amount of education in STEM.

It only occurred to James that there was a gender divide in STEM subjects when she picked physics at A-level. “I was one of three girls in that class,” she said, noting that the class had 26 pupils.

Aly King-Smith, an executive coach passionate about helping women into STEM, said that noticing the gender divide in STEM is unavoidable.

“It’s just everywhere, every day. Conferences, board rooms, exhibitions, panels – grey suits outnumber the women; homepages of medical websites, engineer adverts on billboards,” King-Smith told Study International.

King-Smith added that sexism in the industry starts from a young age.

When her daughter was choosing her GCSEs, she found her Physics teacher to be intolerant of the girls and somewhat sexist, putting many of them off the subject.

And it only gets worse. King-Smith said she recently worked with a group of female engineers who told her the moment they chose physics at A-level, they began to feel marginalised.

“We are told to doubt ourselves on this path, in this career, we are constantly made to feel that we can’t do it, not from our university but more from ourselves, innately. From how society has told us what our skillsets are, and this lack of confidence is troubling,” said James.

What about students who don’t have a supportive background?

“I think it was only because of my mum I felt encouraged to do it [study engineering],” James said. “I was lucky because I knew what I wanted to do, and my mum supported me and told me I could do it.”

But not every girl is so lucky. And without support from family, it’s going to be hard to buck the trend.

James is running a project – Project Soteria – which is not just aimed at girls but at other young people from non-traditional backgrounds and working-class families. She received funding from The Environment Now, funded by O2 to set up her project. Project Soteria works to get girls into engineering through a practical hands-on workshop at the University of Bristol.

“That’s how you engage children – you give them an experience,” James said. “You let them see what engineering is about. You give them technical experience, which is where girls fall down.”

James likened this to bike tyres. She claimed that as a child, her brother knew how to change a tyre and, despite cycling the same amount, she only learned to do this when she was 20.

“That’s because people still ingrain this into girls,” James said. “Dads will bring their boys out and show them the inside of cars: they’re taught to understand the mechanics. Subconsciously, people give boys more technical experience so when they apply to university they can think ‘I really like the sound of engineering because I remember helping my dad with X, Y, or Z’.

That’s why girls fall down; they don’t have this ingrained idea of technical working and so they doubt that they can do it. I subconsciously doubt that I can do XYZ for no reason. And I know that these boys don’t know any better than I do, but they don’t have the same system of doubt built into them.”

How can we get more women into STEM?

James and King-Smith are not alone in their push to get more girls and young women in STEM fields.

The University of East London (UEL) are one of many UK universities working to enable girls to explore STEM subjects at degree level and beyond. Clare Matysova, Athena SWAN Project Officer at UEL, told Study International that the university is running Outreach, which includes taster days, post-16 workshops, partnership programmes and civic engagement projects.

UEL recently started working with WISE on their ‘People like me’ initiative, which Matysova describes as “a revolutionary approach to engaging girls with careers in STEM.”

The programme matches young girls with role models from their chosen area who are successful, happy, and have similar personalities to the girls.

Isla Macneil is also doing her bit. Macneil runs Ingenues, a company that creates children’s activities, workshops and events based on brilliant women and their careers.

“All too many children seem to come armed with the idea that they can’t do something before they have had a chance to actually try,” Macneil told Study International.

Macneil is currently working on a project with the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) for their ICE200 celebrations next year. Macneil and her team will be delivering workshops across Yorkshire and the Humber to children aged between 7 and 11.

“These will be based on civil engineers from history and include experiments, games and interviews with female civil engineers working today,” Macneil told Study International.

“One of the most shocking things for me,” King-Smith said, “is to see is that many women don’t see the problem at all, so we’re not only fighting the disparity but we don’t even have the support of all the women.”

“So I see it in my vision like the way you start campfires – small, secure, guarded little fires that we get ablaze, before trying to throw on more logs. We need to start so many blazing little fires that the whole lot will have to ignite.”

King-Smith feels this will amplify the projects she, and many others like her, are successfully working on. The modern world makes this all the more easy for this to happen.

“Technology is what will enable the fire-starters around the globe to communicate,” King-Smith said.

Women like Macniel, Matysova, King-Smith and James are challenging the world of STEM as it is. Their projects and personal endeavours are just some of many attempts to even the gender balance out. The movement is in motion. Women in STEM of the future, we welcome you.

“It’s important to be aware that you’re fighting something,” James asserted. “You’re going up the stream – it’s not going to be easy. And that’s not because you shouldn’t be doing it or you’re not good at it, it’s just because it’s not going to be easy.”

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