42% of 500+ employers in the UK reported having difficulties recruiting STEM-skilled staff in a 2012 CBI survey. Only 13% of the entire UK STEM workforce are girls! In fact, the UK has lowest number of female engineers in Europe, at only 9%.
Getting girls into STEM subjects at school is still challenging and uptake can vary each year and in each school. Not enough girls study STEM subjects and consequently are unable pursue STEM careers. Furthermore, in my own experience as a teacher, girls are likely to opt for Biology should they choose a science A-Level.
What is the solution?
There is no doubt that we, as teachers, can inspire our students; it's up to us to find ways to include more girls in STEM subjects. Organisations have researched how to engage girls in STEM and there are several CPD opportunities each year addressing this issue. Here's a summary of some strategies to encourage girls to take an interest in STEM.
DO NOT make it girl-central, avoid make up and overly feminine stereo types
It's tempting to include girls by referring to make-up in Chemistry lessons or hair straighteners in energy transfer diagrams. While this might engage a few girls for a few minutes, it often reinforces the stereotypes that put girls off. Equally, avoiding them altogether can support the image of a more masculine engineer. Examples that both boys and girls can relate to helps to overcome gender barriers, such as the chemistry of shampoo or iPods in energy transfer diagrams.
The European Commission produced an advert called “Science: It’s a girl thing!” in 2012, which portrayed girls in high heels and make-up strutting around scientific equipment and drawing models of molecules. This got a lot of attention but for the wrong reasons as it seems to focus on the good looks of the women involved and not their qualifications. The video is available on YouTube - view it yourself and make your own mind up or perhaps use it a CPD tool in your own departments or to stimulate discussion between the girls in your classroom.
Make it personally relevant
The highly successful SciGirls programme in the US has produced the SciGirls 7 – guidance for how to involve girls in STEM. One of the steps of this programme is to make it personally relevant. While this seems obvious, having the time to get to know your classes is quite difficult while you are teaching curriculum content, assessing literacy and numeracy skills AND subject skills, showing progress in the first 5 minutes and embedding deeper learning! One solution is to use a plenary triangle to allow pupils to write about themselves in a subject relevant way, which you can then look at later. For example, 3 skills they used in lesson, 2 things they found interesting, 1 thing they want to know more about or 1 question they would like you to answer.
Avoid using the word “engineer” when talking about careers
The Institute of Physics found girls were less interested in a career with the word ‘engineer’ in the title as this often conjures up an image of a man in dirty overalls. As much as this is a false idea, it's one embedded in society. Instead, talk about job descriptions and what the career actually involves before using the job title. This way you can stimulate interest first and the title will be less off-putting to girls.
Use STEM ambassadors
Free STEM Ambassadors can provide positive role models for girls to aspire to - each with their own personal story to share. Some ambassadors are willing to mentor pupils for a period of time, such as the duration of a project.
More information, ideas and tips can be found from the following sources: Institute of Physics, National Girls Collaborative Project, National STEM Centre, STEMettes, WISE.