‘Schools will be instrumental in women being equally represented in science’

On International Day of Women and Girls in Science, minister for women, Baroness Berridge of The Vale of Catmose, talks about the role education can play in improving gender equality

What is International Day of Women and Girls in Science about?

Well, first and foremost, it is about celebrating all the fantastic women in science. People like Katherine Johnson whose calculations were critical to the Apollo moon landing.

Evidently, science is of particular importance in the midst of the current pandemic, and that adds a little extra gravitas to the day. It’s so important that we show our gratitude to all the fantastic women in science who are helping us win the fight against Covid-19.

There are countless doctors, nurses and other frontline staff who have been working flat out to help as many people as possible. And it’s also a day to celebrate women like Professor Sarah Gilbert who designed the Oxford vaccine that is giving us so much hope at the moment.

We want to see many more women like them and so today is a key opportunity for us to encourage women and girls to take STEM classes and consider careers in science.

Why is it key that more girls take STEM classes?

As we build back better, we want to see more female-led start-ups, particularly in science and technology. Did you know up to £250bn of new value could be added to the UK economy by 2030 if women started new businesses at the same rate as UK men?

Getting more girls to take STEM subjects, who then have the tools to go on and build successful STEM careers and companies can be a vital component of the UK’s economic recovery.

In 2019, 37% of girls entered at least one STEM A-level compared to 51% of boys. We want to see that percentage rise so that we can better utilise the talents of women to the benefit of our up-and-coming modern sectors, the UK economy and, of course, women themselves.

If there are far more boys attending science clubs then see what you can do to get girls along

What is the Government doing to get more girls to take STEM subjects?

We’ve been busy trying to tackle this issue for a while now and we continue to fund numerous programmes that will increase girls and young women’s take-up of STEM subjects, including an £84m programme to support computer science teaching.

A key area the Government has been looking at is how gender roles and stereotypes can dissuade girls from taking STEM subjects. They limit aspirations, preventing young women from reaching their potential. This leads to the economy missing out on talent and employment.

We are taking specific action to increase the number of girls taking subjects such as computing, physics and mathematics, including the Improving Gender Balance national research trial led by the Institute of Physics, and the Gender Balance in Computing Programme led by the National Centre for Computing Education.

I’m encouraged to see organisations such as the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) taking action on this issue as well. Recently, the ASA introduced a rule that adverts must not include gender stereotypes likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence. They recognise the damage stereotypes can do, and we should all do likewise, calling out the ones that limit our potential when we see them, whether that’s in advertisements, TV, toys or books.

As minister for women this has been a real priority for me and we are making strong progress. Since 2010 there has been a 31% increase in girls’ entries to STEM A-levels in England. We have also seen the number of women accepted onto full-time STEM undergraduate courses increased by 34% in the UK between 2010 and 2019. We are moving in the right direction and schools will be instrumental in women being equally represented in science.

What can independent schools do to help?

With increased control over what they can cover in lessons, independent schools are in a tremendous position to help here. With this subject flexibility, you can present your pupils with a variety of STEM options. You can encourage your girls to take an interest in these subjects, talking to them about the many great careers women can have in those areas.

When teaching STEM subjects I urge you to talk about some of the numerous successful women in these fields. From Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer, to the first Brit in space, Helen Sharman.

There are successful and fulfilling careers to be had for women in these industries and it is vital that those who are in full-time education currently know that. Supporting them into a career in science through work experience, apprenticeships or other opportunities and seeing them flourish is a hugely rewarding prospect.

Finally, I ask you to help us break down stereotypes. If there are far more boys attending science clubs then see what you can do to get girls along. This is about equality but also about improving the country’s workforce. With your help there will be many more Ada Lovelaces and Helen Sharmans.

11 February 2021 is the sixth International Day of Women and Girls in Science assembly and recognises the female scientists at the forefront of the fight against Covid-19.

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