By Danielle Workman, an 18 year old sixth-form student at Ralph Allen School in Bath studying Maths, Physics and Chemistry.
Did you know that only 6% of the engineering workforce in the UK is female, and just 13% of all engineering degree applicants are girls. There are a lot of statistics that show that women are underrepresented in engineering, but not much about why this is the case. I am an 18 year old girl who wants to be an engineer, so I decided to find out more about this.
The University of Bath made a Vimeo about my findings: https://vimeo.com/131198139
In addition I created an online questionnaire to which over 300 students responded. Their responses showed overwhelmingly that girls are far less interested than boys in pursuing an engineering career. Despite being just as capable and often outperforming boys in maths and physics, the girls do not feel as confident in their ability and do not like the subjects as much as boys. These negative attitudes develop soon after arriving at secondary school and increase as they approach GCSE level. Yet younger girls at the end of primary school are just as enthusiastic about all the STEM subjects as the boys.
I also ran focus groups. These suggested that the girls were more susceptible to gender stereotyping than they perhaps realised. Subconscious gender bias is difficult to avoid and it does affect girls’ enjoyment of subjects like physics. It’s hard for young girls to speak up in a male dominated classroom and to develop confidence in their ability.
Another finding was that girls take longer than boys to decide which subjects they enjoy. The current school system in England only allows students to study a very limited number of A’ levels, which often results in girls dropping maths and physics even though they would be capable of doing well in these subjects.
So what can be done to improve the situation? One thing schools could do is monitor their A’ level subject entries by gender, and be aware of the positive impact teachers can have on encouraging girls to study physics. Also young girls should experience working with female role models already in STEM careers to inspire them to choose non-gender stereotypical professions.
I was surprised at the interest shown by the professionals I sent my report to, including our local MP Ben Howlett. He invited me to contribute to a debate on ‘Increasing diversity in STEM careers’ at the Houses of Parliament. It was good to see that the politicians’ opinions were similar to my own and there seems to be real support for improving the gender balance in this field.