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What schools can do to close ‘bleak’ Stem gender gap

Guest blog by Toni Scullion, Secondary Teacher and founder of DressCode


Girls are the ‘greatest untapped population of Stem professionals’ – but teacher Toni Scullion has ideas for changing mindsets

The number of young girls studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) subjects – particularly computing science – is falling in schools in Scotland. So it’s no real surprise that the gender gap when it comes to women in senior industry-related roles is also looking very bleak.

In 2019, we saw just 89 girls in Scotland enter the Advanced Higher computing science course, in comparison with 525 boys. These numbers are concerning as Advanced Higher pupils are the prime candidates to study a related subject in tertiary education.

But it’s important to note that the stigma runs much deeper than this, with just 17 women, in comparison to 572 men, winning a Nobel Prize in physics, chemistry or medicine since Marie Curie in 1903, and just 28 per cent of the world’s researchers being female.

Scotland is failing to get more women into Stem education

These figures are in stark contrast to the tech boom that Scotland is currently experiencing.

While the country may be recognised globally for its higher education system, when compared to many other leading and steadily emerging countries we lack the drive of getting more women into Stem education.

We aren’t the best at encouraging our young, female students to pursue career paths in Stem, and we don’t do enough to promote the many interesting dimensions within Stem, such as data science, artificial intelligence and robotics.

Adding to this, recent research has suggested that girls underperform in tasks in which they have to “think like scientists”. To combat this, we need to reconfigure their views on what it means to be a scientist – highlighting the positives, and indeed, the endless opportunities that careers in this field present.

But how do we enthuse girls?

When girls are exposed to same-gender role models, their motivation to pursue Stem subjects and explore Stem careers increases. This is because seeing another woman achieve success, provides girls with someone to identify with and proves that women can forge long-lasting careers in this sector.

We need to shout about the opportunities which exist – showcasing some of the groundbreaking technologies being created right on our doorsteps.

We need more industry experts taking the initiative to help bridge the gap between the industry and schools, by discussing their career pathway, what could be possible, and the options available for girls both during and after their time at school.

Our Women in Data Science event with same-gender role models helps to empower girls

This is why events like Women in Data Science, which took place as part of DataFest on 9 March, at Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh, are important because they provide a platform to empower girls.

This event saw two senior pupils asked to create a national online cyber treasure hunt for S2-3 girls (aged about 12-14) to help inspire and encourage them into the computing science sector. This year’s theme involved a simulated hacking of the White House, with teams who successfully completed the challenge gaining access to the Oval Office.

We need to understand and target the obstacles that keep female students away from Stem. We need to stimulate interest from the earliest years, to combat stereotypes; to train teachers to encourage girls to pursue Stem careers; to develop curricula that are gender-sensitive; and to mentor girls and young women in a way that can help change mindsets.

Girls and young women are the greatest untapped population of Stem professionals – we must invest in their talent.

Toni Scullion is founder of dressCode, a project for girls that is designed to close the gender gap in computing science. She won Secondary Teacher of the Year at the Scotland Women in Technology Awards in 2018

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