20 July, 2019

Minding the gender gap (August 2014)

02 September, 2014

The recently announced A-level results show a welcome increase in the take-up of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects, although the gender gap still remains a concern, according to EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation. Verity O’Keefe, education policy adviser at EEF, commented that, with more and more vacancies to fill, manufacturers will be breathing a sigh of relief that the take up of STEM subjects at A-level has increased for the fifth year in a row. “Without a doubt, students who have achieved top grades in these subjects have significantly boosted their employability and their chances of enjoying a successful and sustainable career,” she said. However, O’Keefe added that the overall increase in the take-up of STEM subjects disguises a mixed bag. While the EEF welcomes the fact that the number of girls studying physics has increased by 4.7 per cent year-on-year it is mindful that there is still a significant gap between the number of boys taking this subject compared with girls. Earlier in the year, a report from the Science and Technology Committee took a similar tack, arguing that universities must do more to retain women in scientific careers. Andrew Miller MP, chair of the Committee, said it was “astonishing” that women still remain under-represented at professorial levels in academia across every scientific discipline. “It’s time for universities to pull their socks up,” he insisted. In his view, some universities are doing a good job at improving working conditions for women scientists, while others are not. “The system of short-term contracts is hugely off-putting for many women scientists,” he said, adding: “More standardisation is required across the whole higher education sector and that is why we have called for Government, universities and research councils to review the academic careers structure, so that talented women, and men, can have more stable career pathways.” However, according to statistics from Cambridge Occupational Analysts (COA) earlier in 2014, campaigns to boost girls’ enthusiasm for science and engineering are beginning to bear fruit. The research showed a rise in the proportion of female pupils who are actively considering university courses in STEM subjects. Interestingly, the study shows the proportion of girls expressing an interest in civil engineering, general engineering, combined sciences, chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, chemistry and biochemistry has shown a bigger increase over the past seven years than their male counterparts. COA said the figures provide additional evidence that efforts to redress the imbalance are having an impact, as suggested by the findings of a recent study gauging interest in engineering among 11-14 year-olds, commissioned by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS). The COA survey asked around 20,000 sixth formers in hundreds of schools across Britain completing Centigrade, a university choices questionnaire, which subjects they were interested in studying. Responses collected over the past seven years reveal a significant rise in interest among female pupils in the vital STEM subject areas of civil engineering, general engineering and combined sciences. The percentage of girls expressing an interest in civil engineering rose by 10 per cent between 2006/07 and 2012/13 – double the percentage rise of male pupils. General engineering was considered as a possible choice by over a fifth (22 per cent) of female respondents last year – a 16 per cent increase compared with 7 years ago. Over the same period, the proportion of boys expressing interest in the subject rose by just 5 per cent. Figures for combined sciences show a 19 per cent rise in the proportion of girls expressing enthusiasm for the subject, compared to an 11 per cent rise for sixth form boys. As EEF’s O’Keefe states, “we’re heading in the right direction”, however what is really needed is a concerted effort between Government, industry and the education sector not just to continue driving students into STEM but to also close the gender gap as tightly as possible.

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