Closing the gender gap in engineering

Posted on 23rd Nov 2018 in School News, STEM, Engineering, Which School?

James Johns, Head of Physics at Dauntsey’s, looks at changing attitudes towards careers in STEM...

Engineering is all around you. From robotics and artificial intelligence, to mobile phones, medical technology and advanced sports equipment, to driverless cars and sending Sir Tim Peake into space. Engineering is shaping the future all around us.

All very exciting and interesting and yet it has long been acknowledged that STEM options from school through to post graduate and career paths have something of an image problem. EngineeringUK has said recently that the country needs 1.8 million new engineers and technicians by 2025. There is a particular issue in attracting women and girls to this industry. The gender gap is surprisingly wide with the UK having the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe, at less than ten per cent. According to the Institute of Physics, just 1.9% of girls chose A-level Physics in 2016, compared to 6.5% of boys. If we could shift the perception and encourage equal numbers of female STEM participants, the skills shortage would all but disappear.

A recent European study by Microsoft* is of particular interest to me. It found that the majority of girls became interested in STEM at around the time of starting secondary education, but that their interest had begun to wane prior to making A-level choices. This tells me that we have a key window where we as teachers can influence decisions that will set the trajectory of these students’ academic life in the long-term.

When you look at GCSE, A-Level and University scores, girls tend to outperform boys in STEM subjects when they choose to do them. We must therefore increase their desire to pursue those options. Does a lack of female role models in the wider media make STEM less attractive? On Twitter, 92% of the most followed scientists are male and if asked to think of the current faces of Physics, I expect that Jim Al-Khalili, Brian Cox and perhaps even Morgan Freeman come to mind before the brilliant Dr Helen Czerski.

The key to inspiring future female engineers and scientists lies firmly in the everyday formative experiences of students at school. Here at Dauntsey’s, we are lucky to have been able to appoint a second female Physics specialist. Three of the four previous schools that I have worked at didn’t have any. We are also hopeful of securing a female Physicist, who is at the forefront of her field, as a guest speaker for our annual Physics society dinner and lecture next term. Practical engagement in lessons is vital and Physics at Dauntsey’s is taught in way that engages with the current interests of our pupils, whether it is explicit in our specification or not. As a Head of Department, I would be astounded if the reason a pupil gave, boy or girl, for not continuing with Physics at a higher level, was because they found the subject boring.

Our efforts appear to be paying off. Nationwide, girls make up just over 20% of all A-Level Physics entrants. Here, more than 30% of our Upper Sixth Physics classes are girls and an equal percentage of boys and girls have attained University offers for STEM subjects this year.

As a Department, we work closely with the Careers Department to begin engagement with STEM during the critical pre A-level period. We help promote the EDT (Engineering Design Trust) residential courses for GCSE pupils. We are particularly keen to promote the female-only INSPIRE courses. Research has found that girls are more likely to engage in STEM and that they feel more confident when in female-only environments. This is proving to be successful; two of our Fifth Form girls were accepted on residential engineering courses at Durham University for this summer. Finally, the Careers Department recently ran a trip to the Sandhurst STEM showcase for girls. This was designed specifically to inform girls about career opportunities in STEM. Companies including Airbus, Dyson, Jaguar Land Rover and Network Rail were there, talking about what they do and the career opportunities available – all our girls came back truly inspired by what they learnt.

The message is starting to get through. We recently had a Sixth Form girl land a much sought-after degree apprenticeship in engineering, the competition was very tough, tougher than for many leading university places. Increasingly schools, and pupils, are recognising that University is not the only path to pursue. Degree Apprenticeships provide a great opportunity to continue education whilst contributing to a workforce and getting hands-on experience which is particularly valuable in the engineering industry.

Attitudes are slowly beginning to change but Microsoft’s recent research found that 70% of British girls said they would feel more confident pursuing STEM careers if they knew men and women were equally employed in STEM disciplines. The lesson – for us all – starts at school.

* Why Europe’s Girls Aren’t Studying STEM, Microsoft Report March 2017

Photograph: Pupils from Dauntsey’s attending a STEM showcase for girls at Sandhurst. This was designed specifically to inform girls about career opportunities in STEM.