Figures published by the Department for Education show that UK schools severely lack female computer science students, with some reporting that they have no female ICT students whatsoever.
According to the report 0.4% of female students chose to study A-levels in computer science in 2017; significantly less than the 4.5% of their fellow male students. In fact, across the board in STEM subjects the numbers are deeply concerning with only 18.1% of females choosing maths at A-level grade and 2.3% choosing to study it at higher levels. One third of male students chose to study A-level maths, while 7.1% chose to study it further.
The only science-based subject which saw higher levels of female engagement was biology, with 18.6% of females choosing the subject compared to 13.5% of males.
Although these figures are a damning glimpse into the overall participation of young women in STEM subjects, there does lie a glimmer of hope. Compared to 2016 the number of women choosing to study these subjects has risen – It is, however, a very small increase.
Participation in maths rose 1.1%, while chemistry and biology both saw increases of 0.7% and 0.6% respectively.
Despite slight increases in engagement, there is still much to be done in regards to increasing the number of female students studying STEM subjects – So just what is the government doing about it?
Engaging & Inspiring
The Scottish Government’s Curriculum for Excellence places enormous focus on increasing STEM participation in young people, particularly young women. Highlighting a number of initiatives, the Scottish Government aims to increase participation by continuing to provide funding for organisations such as the Scottish Schools Education Research Centre, and also investing in the teaching of science subjects in primary schools through the Wood Foundation.
From 2015 to 2016 the Scottish Government invested over £135,000 in various science engagement initiatives, which included:
- £50,000 in the Generation Science shows for primary schools, run by Edinburgh International Science Festival
- £40,000 in Young Engineers and Science Clubs at primary and secondary schools, run by the Scottish Council for Development and Industry
- £25,000 in British Science Week at primary and secondary schools and community organisations, run by the British Science Association
- £20,000 in the GeoBus activity and learning days for secondary school pupils, run by the University of St Andrews
The Young STEM Leaders programme is set to begin this year and according to Scottish Government will be “fully operational by 2020“. This aims to stimulate the development of peer mentoring and inspire children and young people to engage in STEM subjects.
The government is providing funding of almost £50,000 to Equate Scotland for their Women Returners Project; supporting women with qualifications in science subjects back into these sectors after periods of absence. Support programs will also go beyond school-based education. 93% of modern apprentices are male, and to combat this imbalance, Skills Development Scotland will work with organisations to increase female-uptake of STEM related programmes between 2018 and to 2022.
The government is clearly investing in STEM engagement, however raising awareness and breaking down gender stereotypes is also a major part of bringing more young women into STEM. According to the Scottish Government website, addressing “gender bias with parents, families and teachers” is critical and in the long-term will help break down barriers for young women.
Last week Digit reported on the success of the Linlithgow Academy and Inveralmond High School teams in the F1 in Schools Challenge. Both teams are comprised solely of young female students who are not only inspiring their fellow students, but raising awareness of the subject through their incredible successes.
Initiatives such as these allow students to engage in science subjects in ways that they may not be able to in classes and bring much needed attention to the issue when success stories such as this are publicised.
A key component of their success – other than their talent, hard work and dedication – has been support from organisations such as Inoapps and Digital Xtra. Collaboration between government, education authorities and private enterprise can help in STEM engagement by providing teachers and students with the tools to interact and engage in challenges and initiatives.
There is no single way to address the problem, and so it is crucial that leading figures in government, education and industry play a combined role.