Why aren’t more girls in the UK studying STEM subjects?

Microsoft research pinpoints when and how to engage more young British women in science and technology

A new study of 1,000 girls and young women in the UK aged between 11 and 30 shows that, on average, there is just a five-year window to foster their passion for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. Research commissioned by Microsoft shows that while most girls in the UK become attracted to STEM subjects just before the age of 11, their interest drops off sharply between the ages of 16-17, highlighting the importance of engaging girls in primary school cycle.

The research also revealed the path to preventing this decline in interest: better role models, parental and teacher support, practical experience and knowledge of STEM subjects’ application in the real world, and believing they will be treated as equally as men working in STEM.

Not everywhere is equal

The multi-country research found girls’ attitudes towards STEM differ dependent on where they live in Europe. In some places, confidence is a major barrier, while in others, peer approval or lack of role models is what’s holding young women back the most. It’s clear that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to tackling this problem; solutions need to be targeted at overcoming specific local barriers:

• 43% of girls in the UK would consider a career in STEM, compared to 54% in Ireland and 50% in Russia.

• Girls in Russia start to become interested at the age of 10, a year earlier than girls in the UK

• In the UK 44% of girls say that both parents talk to them about STEM, as opposed to 62% in Russia

• 53% of girls in the UK believe there are encouraging role models out there but 62% would like to see more encouragement coming from professional female coders, developers and lab scientists

• 23% of girls in the UK feel STEM subjects are geared towards boys whereas girls in Russia and Finland feel STEM subjects are perceived to be gender-neutral

Identifying the problem 

Over the past decade, employment in the UK technology sector has grown 2.8 times faster than overall employment. Cultivating girls’ initial interest in STEM and encouraging them to pursue careers in the field will not only create greater job security for the next generation; it can also boost the wider economy and ensure the UK remains at the forefront of the global cloud-enabled economy. 

The research reveals that we can’t afford to wait until girls are thinking about university courses to foster their interest in STEM – Cindy Rose, UK CEO, Microsoft

“The research reveals that we can’t afford to wait until girls are thinking about university courses to foster their interest in STEM,” commented Cindy Rose, UK CEO, Microsoft. “To stop the drop-off in interest in STEM at 16, we’re working with governments, teachers and non-profits to modernise the curriculum and provide better access to mentors. That’s why we recently announced a national skills programme to boost digital skills. We also want to show girls that technology can be a creative, fulfilling career, through programmes such as our DigiGirlz events, which aim to dispel stereotypes associated with the tech industry as well as our involvement in, www.modernmuse.org, which gives girls access to professional women from all industries, including our very own Microsoft muses.”

Encouragement and mentorship are key

The insights gained from this research can help educators, policymakers and companies like Microsoft understand the challenges young women in the UK face when it comes to pursuing STEM subjects, and take practical steps to overcome them.

The research revealed six statistically important drivers which impact British girls’ interest in STEM subjects, listed in order of importance:

• Access to female role models in STEM fields;

• Gaining practical experiences and hands-on exercises in STEM subjects; 

• Feeling more confident that men and women are treated equally in STEM careers;

• Having teachers who encourage them to pursue STEM;

• Learning about real-life applications that show what they can do with STEM subjects;

• Feeling like it is a betrayal amongst their peer group to like STEM

Breaking down stereotypes

The research also found that gender stereotypes hold young women back the most. 70% of girls in the UK said they would feel more confident pursuing STEM careers if they knew men and women were equally employed in these professions. Whilst 10% admitted that it would feel like a betrayal to show interest in STEM amongst their peer group, 23% felt STEM examples are geared towards boys.

The study uncovered that peer approval and access to role models are also major barriers. Whilst 53% of girls in the UK believe there are encouraging role models out there, this perhaps reveals a bigger issue that girls don’t know how to reach them. Building on this, 62% of girls in the UK would like to see more encouragement coming from professional female coders, developers and lab scientists.

Microsoft is involved with a new platform, www.modernmuse.org, which aims to provide girls online access to female professionals working across industries, including technology. Karen Gill MBE and Maxine Benson MBE, Founders of everywoman and the new Modern Muse platform commented: “The rich variety of experiences profiled on Modern Muse will give girls the tools to make that important first step in their career – and ensure parents and teachers know what is required to get them there.

‘In the UK, there is widespread concern that not enough young people are choosing to study STEM subjects after the age of 16, and women are particularly underrepresented. Engaging with Muses can help girls to make informed subject choices at school, and allow them to unlock great opportunities as a result.”

Developing next generation skills 

Recognising the need to equip more people with the right skills for our digital era, Microsoft recently published a book entitled A Cloud for Global Good, which includes policy recommendations for creating a more inclusive cloud-based society – whether that’s getting computer science on curricula, fostering public-private partnerships, or investing in lifelong skills training.

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