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Gender divide in our nation’s classrooms. Where does it STEM from?

Gender divide in our nation’s classrooms. Where does it STEM from?

As a Head of Juniors at St Mary's School, Cambridge, a leading girls school, and as a father of three girls, I was both interested, and equally horrified, to see the recent YouGov survey results. The survey revealed which subjects were enjoyed by 4,000 children – boys and girls – aged 6 to 15.

As you can probably guess, the stats highlighted a higher percentage of girls favouring creative subjects, such as art. 62% of girls said they enjoy the subject a lot, and only 34% of the boys. Similarly, subjects such as English came out a firmer favourite for girls (42% enjoy the subject vs 25% of boys), and languages (28% vs 18%). In direct contrast, the survey found that boys are much more likely to enjoy computing (64% vs 46% of girls), mathematics (42% vs 32%), science (48% vs 39%) and physical education (51% vs 42%).

So why does this matter? And should we as educators, parents and our wider society feel concerned by such low levels of engagement? It is hugely publicised that Science Technology Engineering and Maths (STEM) careers are male dominated. Just 38% of Maths graduates are women, and the numbers are even worse for Computer Studies and Engineering – respectively, 19% and 15% of graduates are women.

It is hardly surprising these statistics are so low, however, when we consider that 13% of the overall UK STEM workforce is female, or if we also reflect on how few female STEM role models there are both today, and in the recent past.  Whilst it was cause for celebration this week to hear that Donna Strickland has become the first woman Physics Nobel prize winner in 55 years, equally it is cause for concern that so few women reach these heights, and this has worrying implications regarding inspiring future generations of female scientists and engineers.

So where are we going wrong as a society? I feel strongly that we must look beyond the classroom to some more deep-rooted issues, which are surprisingly prevalent, in our modern society. Look at any toy catalogue or look down the aisle in your local toy shop and there is a clear distinction as to what should interest boys vs girls. Make up sets, plastic dolls and the latest craft kits all sit firmly in the area for girls – which is usually a strong shade of pink. Whereas the boys have the construction sets, the science kits and the plastic dinosaurs. From birth as a society we condition our children to identify with their peers of the same gender.

Today’s packaging is also clearly labelled to ensure that even the youngest child is given strong signals to show them which area should appeal to their gender. Just think for a moment, when was the last time you saw a boy on the packaging for a make-up kit? Or a girl playing with a bright yellow digger? These signals have detrimental consequences, with children feeling as though they cannot do something because it is labelled as just for girls or just for boys. A girl may not feel she can become a surgeon and she may not develop a passion for science. Moreover, a boy may feel as though he cannot become an artist despite his artistic talent and his confidence may deteriorate because of it. It is these stereotypes that hold the children back and gradually reduce their self-worth and self-esteem.

In 2017, one state school decided to put these gender stereotypes to the test by transforming their school, and encouraging their parents, to be gender neutral. A class of 23 seven-year-old boys and girls from Lanesend Primary School on the Isle of Wight took part in a term-long ‘gender neutral’ experiment to prove that by removing all the differences influencing young children their abilities and confidence would be evened out. As part of the experiment parents were asked to pack away their daughters’ dolls and signs reading “girls are strong” and “boys are sensitive” were hung on classroom walls.

In many ways at St Mary's School every day we teach in this type of gender neutral environment. Our girls do not learn and play in a community where boys will be boys, and vice versa, as ours’ is an education free from stereotypes. Our School daily transforms into a science lab, a construction site or a workshop – whatever the imagination of each of our girls needs it to be to help them learn and grow, and in whatever area.

And the results speak for themselves; in terms of girls’ only education, students are:

  • 75% more likely to take Maths A-level
  • 70% more likely to take Chemistry
  • two and a half times as likely to take Physics
  • over twice as likely to take most languages.

Girls who attend Girls’ School Association (GSA) schools achieve a disproportionately large share of the top grades in ‘difficult’ subjects. Bucking national trends, over 55% of girls at GSA schools take a STEM subject at A Level. Just under two fifths take Maths and just over two fifths take at least one science. In Physics, for example, 13.4% of all entries from girls come from GSA schools, (above the 5.2% baseline), but they are awarded 25.9% of the A*s and 20.5% of the A or A* grades.