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The great STEM gender gap: what independent schools are doing to reverse the trend

By Talk Education
02 November 2022

Image: Downe House

According to PwC, only five per cent of leadership positions in the UK’s tech sector are currently held by women. Research undertaken by government-funded growth network Tech Nation found that women make up a measly 16 per cent of the UK’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) workforce. Right now, only 35 per cent of higher education students studying towards a STEM degree in the UK are female. These are sobering statistics.  

We live in a world where girls are championed, supported and encouraged to smash through glass ceilings and do everything and anything boys can do (take the Lionesses’ World Cup victory this summer – how’s that for girl power in an area traditionally reserved for boys?), yet boys are still far more likely to study STEM subjects at school. This means that they are therefore more likely to go on to study STEM-related courses at university, before snapping up the highly coveted, highly paid jobs in STEM-related careers. Schools wax lyrical about preparing their students for a changing world of groundbreaking technological advances, mass digitalisation and the emergence of occupations that don’t currently exist. So what are they doing to ensure women don’t miss out?  

Piquing pupils’ interest at a young age is one surefire way to ignite the STEM spark. Co-ed St Faith’s, located in the historic university city of Cambridge (itself fast becoming a world-leading fin- and biotech hub), puts just as much emphasis on STEM subjects as it does on sport. The school is leading the way with engineering as a core curriculum subject from Year 3, taught by those whose first career was in the industry. Pupils learn programming from the age of five, and all are fluent in it by the time they leave. The most popular club? Goblins, where boys and girls design, build and race electric go-karts as part of a national competition.  

St Faith's

‘Research shows that STEM subjects can be associated with masculine attributes and this puts girls off taking them,’ says Diana Harrison, senior deputy head at St Mary’s Calne, the first independent school in the UK to be awarded the Platinum Science Mark. ‘Needless to say, girls in an all-girls environment feel part of a community where they can – and do – take STEM subjects successfully, so it is not at all surprising that participation of girls in STEM subjects is higher in all-girls schools.’ At St Mary’s Calne, the majority of STEM teachers are female, providing positive role models for the girls, and encouraging them to set up their own academic societies – including the gory but cool Dissection Club.  

Employing inspirational teachers and ensuring lessons are fun, interactive and relevant is, of course, crucial. Ceri Jones, the head of co-ed Caterham School (where 60 per cent of girls in the sixth form are currently studying STEM subjects), believes ‘the most important factor underpinning the success is enthusiastic and inspiring teachers who are ambassadors for their subjects’. At Mayfield School – where STEM subjects are the most popular A-levels – girls are exposed to experiential learning from the get-go, be it investigating lung capacity in biology, crystal formation in chemistry, building Lego robots in computer science clubs or attending talks on the science of aromatherapy. At Heathfield School, pupils might be cloning cauliflowers, producing aspirin or designing and building solar-powered phone chargers. ‘Many members of our science department have worked as scientists in the private sector or in universities, and this really helps to enrich the learning experience’, says the school.  

Mayfield School

Downe House has recently appointed its first-ever head of STEM, tasked with driving forward a number of exciting initiatives designed to encourage girls to look at STEM subjects beyond the constraints of the GCSE or A-level curriculum. Later this year, the school will launch its very own TED-talk style ‘STEM Shorts’ series, which will see girls with their eye on a STEM-related Oxbridge course present a topic of their choice to their peers, explaining why they feel inspired to choose a STEM-focused career. The school’s annual STEM residency welcomes guest speakers and includes live demonstrations and competitions. Staff are learning too: an ongoing teacher learning-and-research project run by the school aims to uncover how a loss in girls’ confidence in STEM subjects during secondary schooling can be alleviated or, even better, permanently reversed.  

It is also important that schools go out of their way to demonstrate how STEM subjects relate to real life. St Mary’s Calne girls are currently planning a trip to Madagascar to see what they’ve learnt in the classroom in action. ‘Teaching staff always make science relevant to the real world, and girls frequently go off to read engineering at university with the intention of helping solve the energy crisis,’ adds Diana Harrison.  

Schools are also finding that exposure to female role models can make a big impact on an impressionable teen. ‘Those role models come in the shape of older pupils and alumnae who stay engaged and come back regularly,’ says Ceri Jones, who recently welcomed back old girl Alia Ardron to talk to pupils about her role as a test engineer at SpaceX. ‘If you know you are interested in something, put the effort in to research and pursue it – don’t just look longingly from a distance,’ Ardron advised her enraptured audience.  

Benenden School recently invited former leader of the NHS Test and Trace programme Baroness Dido Harding, chairperson of HCL Technologies Roshni Nadar and Alex Evans, a managing director at Barclays, in to speak. Pupils at Queen’s College London have heard from Professor Rebecca Shipley, whose team developed a revolutionary breathing mask that saved tens of thousands of lives during the pandemic, as well as a group of female NASA flight controllers. Malvern St James Girls’ School has a suitably cool role model in old girl Kate Ferry, the CFO at McLaren. In the past few months, Surbiton High School has welcomed back an old girl currently working for DEFRA and another who became an airline pilot after studying aerospace engineering. A Year 13 pupil at Surbiton High came away from one such talk with the newfound confidence to apply for natural sciences at Cambridge, so it’s clear that girls need more role models to give them the courage to take the next steps towards a STEM-related career.  

Benenden School

Seeing these careers in action – and how studying STEM subjects can open doors in all areas of industry – is essential. ‘Misconceptions around what a career in STEM actually looks like can hold girls back, but through our career guidance schemes we help to show students that even those who desire a role which seems to be far away from STEM could find that dream future job embedded in a technological or scientific environment,’ says Derek Bottomley, head of monitoring and tracking and mathematics at Queen Anne’s Caversham. Olivera Raraty, the head of Malvern St James Girls’ School, firmly believes that students need to appreciate that innovation and creativity depend on a fusion of subjects, so here pupils follow a STEAM curriculum, with the added addition of the arts. ‘Design and innovation are a natural fit with engineering, for example – a subject which is often regarded as a bit of a mystery but which offers a myriad of career opportunities. It’s important that school subjects are recognised as being applicable in the world of work,’ says Mrs Raraty. Pupils at Marymount International School also refer to STEAM, with state-of-the-art dedicated learning spaces and plenty of project-based learning embedded into the curriculum from Year 7 all the way through to their final years studying the IB.   

Some schools are using their resources and facilities to help bridge the gender gap not just among their own pupils but out in the wider community too. Badminton School is on a mission to quash perceptions via its Science Outreach Programme, a unique initiative launched to help redress the imbalance shrouding STEM subjects. As part of the initiative, pupils have been busy demonstrating and presenting science experiments in front of audiences ranging from local primary children to audiences in their thousands on both national and international stages. Sixth-former Noor, the school’s science outreach officer, is evangelical about the benefits. ‘Our main work is providing a diverse set of role models for young children to counteract the idea that physics and other sciences only appeal to men. At my school, we want the physical sciences to be inclusive, to show young women’s interest and involvement in them.’ And all that hard work seems to be paying off – among Badminton’s 2022 leavers, 39 per cent went on to study STEM-related subjects at university, including medicine, computer science, biochemistry and engineering.  

Badminton School

We’ve been hugely impressed with stories of girls’ successes in STEM competitions, Olympiads and events too. Canford pupil Lucy was recently crowned the winner of the national STEM Bronze Award, which recognises students’ project work in STEM subjects and helps them gain an insight into engineering, technological, pharmaceutical and mathematics career paths. ‘I hope that I can be an inspiration to the girls around me to show the capabilities of women within STEM’, said Lucy upon receiving the award.  Earlier this term, one pupil at Queen Anne’s Caversham won a highly prestigious Arkwright engineering scholarship, the most coveted award of its kind for school-age children, designed to inspire students to change the world through engineering and help them achieve their goals through mentoring and access to exclusive enrichment events and financial aid. At Mayfield School, four girls have secured an Arkwright scholarship in the past three years.   

Benenden School is currently preparing for its first STEM Convention, an event designed to celebrate students’ independent research projects and investigation. Pupils will host well over 100 students from partner schools. Mayfield School’s maths department is ‘at the forefront of maths enrichment in East Sussex’, according to the school’s deputy head academic Annabel Bunce, running events from the primary-school team competition and Integration Bees, all the way up to the A-level maths conference hosted in conjunction with the centrally funded Advanced Maths Support Programme.  

Technology sits front and centre in many of the all-girls schools we spoke to. Queen Anne’s Caversham is currently celebrating four years as a Microsoft Showcase School, awarded to those that can demonstrate the use of student-centred, immersive and inclusive experiences that inspire lifelong learning and the development of future-ready skills. St George’s Ascot was recently awarded Google for Education Reference School status, which underpins the school’s commitment to using innovative technology to stretch learning techniques and the skills and capabilities of using tech in everyday life.  

St George's Ascot

Sending your daughter to an all-girls school certainly helps eliminate any STEM-related gender stereotypes, but co-ed schools are doing their bit too. Brighton College recently launched a new STEM webinar series, open to female pupils at the school and girls at a handful of local schools. Heather Justice, a software engineer and Mars Rover driver at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in California, gave the opening talk. Two of the most important women behind the UK’s Covid vaccine rollout – Sarah Gilbert from AstraZeneca and Kate Bingham, chair of the Vaccine Taskforce – have, says headmaster Richard Cairns, ‘inspired a whole new generation of girls to consider a career in science’. In response, Brighton College has rolled out a series of paid internships for female undergraduates or graduates looking to pursue a career in STEM, based at the school’s astonishing School of Science and Sport. ‘Science teaching in schools and at universities is overwhelmingly dominated by men,’ says Mr Cairns. We hope that this scheme might serve as a model to encourage more women scientists into teaching, reinforcing a message to girls everywhere that science is not just for boys.’  

Brighton College

Marlborough College – one of the first major public schools to admit girls, in 1968 – is equally committed to bridging the gender gap. Girls often head up STEM clubs and societies, and the school is the first in the UK to work with the Young Guru Academy, a not-for-profit global organisation focused on promoting socially conscious STEM education. Trips to anywhere from the National Space Centre to CERNE give pupils the chance to meet real scientists in their place of work. Having such knockout facilities certainly helps – with the internationally renowned Blackett Observatory in the school grounds, astronomy is a firm fixture on the curriculum from Year 10. ‘We are delighted that currently the percentage of girls studying biology and chemistry at A-level is 65 per cent and 56 per cent respectively,’ says head of science Dr Garry Doyle.  

Happily, there’s less cause for concern in some schools. ‘As an all-girls school, there is no such thing as boys’ or girls’ favoured subjects, and the academic and pastoral support teams work hard to ensure girls feel able to explore a wide variety of subjects and nurture their interest in those which may be less commonly adopted in a co-ed environment,’ says St George’s Ascot. ‘A huge proportion of our students select science at A-level, nearly all of whom go on to select degree courses in a scientific field, and our students don’t even consider that there is a gender imbalance,’ says Anna Costello, head of science at The Marist. ‘When I look at the students coming through to A-level, and the confidence with which they leave to do a range of degrees – from medicine, pharmaceuticals, engineering and biomedicine – I feel reassured that we are doing everything we can to even out the gender imbalance,’ she continues.   

One thing’s for sure: if schools keep up their brilliant work, those sobering statistics may well one day belong to the past.