Girls in STEM

At Unifrog, we were excited to learn that ASCL President Rachel Warwick has made supporting and promoting equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) the theme of her presidential year. In particular, ASCL’s plan to focus on actions around the three protected characteristics of sex, race and sexual orientation is also something we feel passionately about as a company.

We recently published our first report in our Horizons series which looks into the future by analysing how half a million UK students use our platform to help students make the best choices when applying to university. One of the key findings in our report highlighted the progress made in closing the gender gap in STEM subjects in both state and independent schools. 

The gender STEM divide 
Looking at data from over 500,000 students over six cohorts, we found that although girls are far more likely to go to university than boys, they’re less likely to study STEM subjects. 50% of boys starting university in 2017 were studying science subjects, compared to only 42% of girls.

Why does this matter?
Closing the STEM gap is a priority for many schools, not least because STEM graduates are in short supply in the labour market and command a wage premium, something which is only set to increase. 

Can we close the gap?
Our report data suggests it’s possible to close the gap although some subjects within STEM require more attention than others. Across both state and independent students, there’s been progress in shrinking the gap over the last few years. In independent schools in particular, the gap has all but closed with 44% of girls shortlisting STEM compared to 45% of boys in 2019. The gap remains larger at state schools with 37% of girls shortlisting STEM subjects compared to 43% of boys.

A closer look
Digging into this data further we found two key drivers of change. Firstly, it is mainly all-girls schools showing the highest proportion of girls shortlisting STEM subjects. Looking at independent school leavers in 2019, 49% of girls at all-girls schools shortlisted a STEM course compared to 41% of girls at co-ed schools. 

The second area of interest was the subjects that girls and boys are shortlisting. In 2019, biological sciences and psychology were in the top five most shortlisted courses for girls but not boys whereas engineering, maths and computer science all made it into the boys’ top five  but not girls. It’s clear that a strong interest in biological sciences and psychology is the main factor behind girls shortlisting STEM subjects and if you removed these, the gender gap would be much larger. 

This is important as engineering, maths and computer science command significantly higher starting salaries than biological sciences. For example, the average salary six months after graduating with a psychology degree is £17,500 compared to £26,000 for mechanical engineering graduates.  

Case study
Badminton School, an independent school for girls aged 3-18 in Bristol, has a pioneering approach to helping develop the next generation of female scientists which is contributing towards redressing the STEM gender balance. To do this, they’ve introduced a variety of activities to capture and develop the girls’ curiosity in STEM subjects. Each year group has access to STEM activities and opportunities for mentoring within and between year groups. 

Activities include ‘hands on’ engineering challenges sponsored by young professionals within the industry, life science lessons where students undertake animal studies at Jersey-Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, CREST Award investigations linked to Bristol, Gloucester and Bath universities, and national and international competitions. 

The result
At Badminton, there’s good uptake in all the main STEM A level subjects. Most noticeably, in the last two years there’s been a shift from one physics A level class in a year to two. The expectation that all students will do Triple Award (Separate Sciences) is set from Year 7 and although some students will shift to Double Award in Year 11, this is less than 5% of the year. 

Unifrog is one of our headline sponsors at ASCL Annual Conference 2020. Their workshop Levelling the Playing Field to Help Young People Find the Best Opportunities will be at 11.30am on Saturday 14 March. 

Posted: 23/01/2020 12:15:14