A few years ago, I read of piece of research that completely changed the focus of my work at the British Science Association. Despite a huge amount of effort and money being put into encouraging girls in STEM at secondary school, research has suggested that by the time children reach age 10 they have already developed a fairly set idea about whether they aspire to be a scientist. By focusing efforts on girls in secondary school, many well-meaning initiatives were missing the fact that the crucial stage for young people to develop their STEM identity is actually at primary school. It has led to a complete shift in the way my team allocates time, funds and focus.
As educators, we have the power to implement strategies that engage all pupils in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects. In order to be effective, these strategies must take a holistic approach, addressing wider factors which often discourage girls from pursuing a career in STEM, such as fewer famous role models and the internalisation of gender stereotypes, as well as giving girls the opportunity to develop and be rewarded for their STEM skills and knowledge.
International studies suggest a male-centred view of STEM. For example, when researchers asked seven to 11-year-old pupils to draw what they wanted to be when they were older, they found gender stereotypes influenced answers across the board. Boys were four times more likely to want to be an engineer in comparison to their female counterparts and nearly double the number of boys wanted to become scientists.
Girls were more likely to favour more traditionally feminised STEM careers that involve caring or nurturing roles. Girls were two and a half times more likely than boys to aspire to becoming doctors, and nearly four times more likely to want to be a vet.
Gender stereotypes that are engrained so deeply at such a young age mean that when these children reach secondary school and beyond, very little changes. In fact, studies both in the UK and USA found “children as young as six often rule out options for themselves because of the ingrained stereotypical views they have about the jobs people do based on their gender”.
It would be unrealistic to suggest schools can completely overcome societal gender biases, as they are so systemic and entrenched that they have a strong influence over even the youngest pupils. However, as a community of educators, we do have the power to make a positive difference in three key ways:
1. Be intentional in your examples
Primary teachers can make sure to highlight the achievements and contributions of a diverse range of scientists of all genders and backgrounds, to help provide a broader understanding of the subject and encourage pupils to pursue science, if this is their passion. There are some excellent examples of diverse role models, such as British Science Week’s Smashing Stereotypes project and NUSTEM’s STEM person of the week activity, while WISE’s My Skills My Life resources are brilliant ways to help children identify with STEM role models in a very personal way.
2. Link to children’s lives and community
Highlight the scientists who are relevant to the lives of the children in your school. Collaborate with local businesses and parents working in STEM and either invite them to speak with students or organise a school trip to bring the industry to life for pupils.
3. Reflect and challenge
Challenge stereotypes the way that you would any other misconception in the classroom and reflect on your own internal biases as you plan and teach.
It is important for schools to give all young people the opportunities to develop their STEM skills, understanding and passions – especially those who may feel less able to develop this interest outside of school, including girls.
Project-based work can help achieve this, as this form of learning encourages pupils to investigate their interests just as a real scientist would. When children are given the opportunity to explore an area of STEM which interests them most – a project where they can prove what they can do and understand how they can contribute to the field - they can thrive in their own unique way. This process can help affirm the skills and achievements and boost the confidence of all pupils. We see this happen across the UK in schools which offer our CREST Awards, which are taken up equally by male and female pupils who want to demonstrate their passion for science.
Make it relevant
Making links between science and children’s real lives is important. This can be achieved through eliciting and valuing children’s experience within the classroom or signposting opportunities to explore STEM at home or in the community. It helps normalise engagement with STEM, and applying scientific knowledge to different circumstances enhances learning.
Engaging communities and parents can be challenging at times, but we’ve seen brilliant examples of schools using British Science Week or CREST Award activities as a focus for home or community learning.
If girls are supported to explore their interest in STEM, and celebrated as scientists in the classroom and at home, they will be equipped with far more tools to help them overcome the hurdles which might discourage them from pursuing the subject.
Know your strengths
Primary teachers hold powerful keys to unlocking girls’ STEM passions. Central to this is acknowledging the barriers which may discourage some from fulfilling their potential, such as gendered stereotypes which influence all pupils. Once these have been acknowledged, they can be addressed through actively challenging stereotypes and providing relevant, practical and personal STEM teaching and experiences.
All pupils deserve a world in which everyone can thrive in science. So too does the science industry as a whole - and the first step to achieving this is in primary schools.
Empowering girls in STEM
If we avoid addressing stereotypes in STEM, it can be a barrier to girls taking an interest in science and maths related subjects. By creating a safe discussion space where pupils of all genders can question and critically analyse false stereotypes, as well as express their own thoughts and feelings on the topic, it opens to way to challenging any ingrained feelings about who can and cannot do STEM subjects.
It is incredibly important when tackling gender stereotypes to be inclusive when featuring the work of scientists in pupils’ learning. Through initiatives like the British Science Association’s #smashingstereotypes campaign - which features a collection of over 30 stories from individuals and teams demonstrating how science is for everyone - teachers can help encourage all young people, of all genders and backgrounds, to see themselves as scientists. In addition to including examples of female scientists during lessons, providing girls with a real-life STEM role model can have a huge impact on the development of their interest and confidence in the subject. Whether it be a female science teacher, a member of the local community or even senior pupils from neighbouring schools, a science mentor can provide essential guidance and help answer any questions that students may have about careers in STEM or their lessons, as well as supporting them to lead their own investigatory science projects.
Maria Rossini is head of education at the British Science Association