Crossing the gender divide

More girls need to be encouraged to study science subjects, says Helen Jeys, deputy headmistress at Manchester High School for Girls

Writing about gender is always controversial. Talking about girls being equal to boys is appropriate. But suggesting that girls need to become more like boys is perhaps a step too far! However, this is a topic that we need to address and, according to recent statements made by Vince Cable, a necessity for the future success of the UK economy.

Recent research, published by Cambridge University, has confirmed what we have always suspected: boys’ brains are not the same as girls’ brains. Furthermore, these variations are not just explained by upbringing; we are hardwired differently. Amber Ruigrok, one of the scientists associated with this research, said: “For the first time we can look across the vast literature and confirm that brain size and structure are different in males and females”.

In time, this research might explain why boys and girls appear to learn in contrasting ways and why they seem to respond differently to varying teaching strategies. It may also explain why girls’ success in education is growing, particularly at the age of 16. As Andrew Hall, chief executive of the exam board AQA, recently said: “Girls are continuing to outperform at A*s and As. Girls are increasing the gap very slightly at grades A to C.”

The research might also go some way to explain the apparent preferences girls have for certain subjects and why boys are more likely to choose mathematically based curriculum areas post-16. It is fantastic, as a deputy head in a girls’ school, to see that girls are doing so well. It is also gratifying to see girls in my school flock to study subjects like Mathematics and Physics at A level. However, my experience does not seem to reflect the national picture. Even today, girls appear to avoid choosing those subjects considered ‘stereotypically’ male. For example, in 2013, just over 28,000 boys took Physics at A level, as against 7,000 girls. However, there is no reason to suggest that girls are not as capable in this subject as boys. Indeed, in 2013, 10.5 percent of these girls attained an A* as against 8.8 percent of boys.

So why aren’t girls taking these subjects, and is it a problem? Well, yes, it is a problem. Recent statistics tell us that the UK has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe, at less than 10 percent. Latvia, Bulgaria and Cyprus lead the continent with nearly 30 percent. “Unless we break that psychological barrier we will have enormous problems for years to come,” Business Secretary Vince Cable told the Guardian. “Half of all state schools don’t have a single girl doing Physics. We are only tapping half the population.”

When analysing the causes of this, some blame male dominance in the physics classroom. Others may blame those who educate girls at 16 for encouraging them to remain with the subjects usually associated with their gender. Or perhaps the media shares some of the responsibility. Professor Brian Cox might inspire boys to study Physics, but is he as successful in encouraging girls? What is clear is that all of these factors result in a dearth of positive female role models to inspire girls to study such subjects post-16.

The recent review published by Professor John Perkins endorses the importance of tapping into female talent in this area and finds that parents are crucial in encouraging an interest in Engineering. Apparently, parents of girls are more likely to approve of careers in the arts, medicine or teaching over that of Engineering and Physics. If the picture is to change, it is a problem that we all need to address in all aspects of life. Exposing girls to inspirational women and their lives can also help. How many of us, for instance, talk about women such as Helena Augusta Blanchard, Marie Curie or Fabiola Gianotti in our assemblies? These women need to be highlighted in order to inspire the women of the future.

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