The STEM gender gap: what can we do about it?

Date: 22.08.2018

The Institute for Fiscal Studies, suggests that only dramatic intervention will change girls’ low take-up of physics and maths at more advanced levels. As we've noted for many years, fewer girls than boys go on to take maths and physics at A-level, and fewer continue with those subjects at a higher education level. 

IFS research suggests that this is because girls are affected by low confidence and an absence of peers in the classroom.

"Among pupils who achieved grade A or A* (equivalent to grades 7-9) in GCSE maths in 2010, 36.5% of girls compared to 51.1% of boys took maths A-level. Among those who achieved grade A or A* in GCSE physics, just 13.2% of girls compared to 39.3% of boys took physics A-level. By contrast, there is almost no gender gap in the likelihood of taking chemistry A-level amongst those who score highly in the subject at GCSE, and girls are actually more likely to take biology A-level than boys."

Some key reasons, according to IFS include:

  • Some content and assessment is off-putting
  • Poor quality teaching
  • Low confidence, especially in physics
  • Girls perceive STEM courses and careers to be male-dominated

The report examined the imapct of the STEM Skills Fund scholarship and found that it was only partially successful in inreasing up-take at A-level, noting that "a substantial proportion of the girls responding to the questionnaire felt that no amount of money could induce them to study maths or physics".

IFS report

In a Schoolzone focus group last year, one teacher was brave enough to ask whether this gender imbalance made any difference really: if girls want to do something else, why not just let them? But the point is that STEM subjects lead to better paid jobs, and in the current environment, the gender pay gap is certainly a national issue. Schools need to ensure that they are giving both sexes equal opportunities to earn.

The IFS makes some suggestions as to how this gender study gap might be addressed, but none of them sound terribly convincing: they've mostly been in place for years. It's a cultural thing which will take years to shift.

Has your school put any effective practices in place? Please let us know and we'll share your ideas with other schools.