Is science a land of equal opportunities?

Professor Gail Cardew reflects on the discussions from the fourth Ri unconference for young people.

  • Students discussed issues around equal opportunities in STEM for people of different genders, cultures and from different financial backgrounds.

    Credit: Andrew Youngson

Recently I’ve been helping my daughter choose a secondary school. You might think that, as a scientist, I would be head down scrutinising all the school GSCE and A-level data and league tables. To a certain extent, knowing a school’s performance does form part of the decision. But we’ve mostly been guided by our experiences visiting the schools, especially talking to students and teachers, and then crossing out ones that don’t match up to our expectations.

One particular story stands out. In ‘mystery shopper’ fashion I wandered into a computer science lab at one school and asked questions about the number of girls taking GCSE computer science. One, I was told, but she doesn’t like being on her own and is going to give up. Then the teacher shrugged and commented ‘Girls just don’t do computer science’.  Well, I thought, my daughter just might, and I don’t want her to be in a school that might give up on her that easily.

It was the teacher’s ‘I can’t do anything about it’ attitude that really bothered me, but what he actually said is true: girls are under-represented in computer science, physics and maths This is despite the fact that girls’ capabilities in these subjects allow them to achieve the highest standards. Instead it seems that they lack confidence and just do not ‘see’ themselves as scientists in these areas1. But why?

We wanted to explore these issues, along with the wider question of equal opportunities in STEM, with themes extended to include young people’s cultural and financial backgrounds.  However, not with female scientists who have broken the mould and are considered role models for the next generation. Nor with expert professionals who champion the cause of diversity in the workplace. We wanted to encourage a conversation amongst students themselves – both boys and girls from different cultures and from both private and state schools – who have recently decided which A-level subjects they are going to take. Did the pressure of exam results in their school affect their decisions? Do they think enough girls are taking these subjects in their schools? Is diversity in science important to them?

Thus, last month we invited over 100 STEM A-level students from 12 schools across Greater London and the surrounding area to come to the Ri to discuss ‘Is science a land of equal opportunities?’. The format of this gathering was in the style of an ‘unconference’ which means that that the direction of discussion is led by the participants themselves, rather than the speakers. We slightly modified this format, however, by having two short talks at the beginning to help frame the context of the discussion, but the speakers were briefed to ask more questions than provide answers. Despite these introductory remarks, the emphasis for the rest of the day was very much student led, with a focus on capturing their thoughts, experiences and recommendations for instigating change.

This format, by the way, fits perfectly into the overall Ri mission of ‘encouraging people to think more deeply about science’. It’s not enough for us that STEM A-level students are given the ‘facts’ about science to get good grades. Instead, we believe they should be given the opportunity to explore the very fabric of science, how it is conducted, what drives it and what shapes it.

You can read the full report of their deliberations here.

Two points stand out for me. The first is that there was an overall feeling that the prominence given to gender-specific recruiting efforts for STEM subjects in schools is off-putting. Instead, a level approach across genders is more appealing. I was pleased this came up, mainly because diversity in STEM isn’t a woman’s problem, confined to women-only initiatives. It’s everyone’s problem, so projects to address it should be championed by everyone.

And the second was that students felt schools pushed them towards subjects, in which they were more likely to attain higher grades, believing this to be an artefact of schools chasing exam results. How bonkers if this is true. It might be the case that the vast majority of students do choose subjects in which they’re confident that they will achieve good grades. I know I did. But it should always be their choice, and if they choose a challenging subject because they are interested in it, shouldn’t they be free to do so? It saddens me if this is the case. So much so that I added it to the list of things to watch out for during my secondary school visits with my daughter.

There were many other fascinating and insightful comments and debates raised during the day that are captured in this report, more than I could possibly say here. 

We want to make sure that these students’ voices are heard as they represent the future potential of our STEM workforce. Please read it, comment on it, challenge it and share it. We’d love to hear your thoughts, and particularly if you’re a teacher or parent with young people around you.

1 The ABC of Gender Equality in Education. OECD. 2015


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