A future for girls in maths and science

A new initiative encourages girls to stick with STEM subjects to A level and beyond

THE idea that there are big differences in the way women and men think and how their brains are wired has been largely discounted by psychologists and neuroscientists, but it is still prevalent in popular culture.

Nowhere is this more noticeable than in the field of science, technology, engineering and maths, the so-called STEM subjects. Girls and boys perform at a similar level in maths and physics at GCSEs, yet far fewer girls than boys choose to carry on these subjects at A level, where only one in ten computer science students and one in five physics students are female. By college age, a career in STEM has slipped out of the picture for most girls: in the UK, women make up just 22 per cent of the workforce in this sector (though this has increased from 13 per cent in 2012).

The reason for this has little to do with biology and much to do with social expectation. Once they get to secondary school, girls get the idea that a life in STEM will not make them happy or successful, or that it is beyond their abilities. They see jobs such as scientist, engineer, computer programmer, technician, statistician and architect as being ‘for the boys’, and there are few role models to persuade them that it might actually be for them.

In September, Common joined the organisation WISE — which has been working to raise the profile of women and girls in STEM since 1984 — in its latest campaign to tackle these culturally engrained stereotypes. Our task was to build a tool that would help girls between the ages of 11 and 19 relate more easily to STEM-based careers, and to show them that continuing with at least one STEM subject to A level would increase the options open to them in the future.

WISE wanted us to improve on an existing resource that they had been using with considerable success. This was a quiz that required girls to scrutinise 44 adjectives and select 12 to 15 that best described them. Their answers were used to match them to types of scientist that would fit their personality — business scientist, communicator scientist, developer scientist, entrepreneur scientist, explorer scientist, investigator scientist, teacher scientist and so on — based on a list drawn up by the Science Council. Although more than 7000 girls completed this quiz, an independent evaluation found that some of them found the long list of adjectives daunting, and that the personality matches were too ‘science focused’ and put some girls off.

The new tool would have to be more accessible and engaging. The aim would be the same: to show girls that people skills, teamwork, creativity and collaboration are hugely relevant to working in maths, physics, technology, computing and engineering, and to encourage them to stick with these subjects all the way through school.

The solution we came up with is an interactive online game that helps students find out more about themselves and what they are good at. It is also fun to play. After signing up, you are asked 15 questions about the kind of person you are. For example, do you like to work on your own or with others (or somewhere in between)? Do you prefer to follow instructions or to work independently? Are you better with words or with numbers? Would you rather lead a team or help it succeed?

Your answers are then fed into an algorithm that matches you with three personality types. For instance, your answers might reveal you to be a mixture of ‘communicator’, ‘influencer’ and ‘investigator’. Clicking on, say, ‘communicator’ will give you a full description of this personality type (‘good with words and people’, ‘good at simplifying complex information and explaining technical facts’), followed by a series of pictures and profiles of women in STEM careers who are also communicators, and a list of roles where this trait is valuable (broadcasting, education, animator, for example). By the end, you will hopefully have got the message that whatever kind of person you are, there’s a place for you in STEM.

The new tool is called My Skills My Life. The launch on 23 January at the University Technical College in Reading was attended by WISE’s patron, Princess Anne, and covered by BBC Radio Berkshire, BBC South Today and the Reading Chronicle. WISE hopes that the publicity will help it bring the game to 200,000 girls over the coming months. Although it is designed for 11 to 19-year-olds, WISE would like to make it available to girls as young as five. This is several years before any gender differences in STEM-related skills have become apparent: the stereotypes have not yet kicked in. The goal of My Skills My Life is to ensure that they never do.