Closing the science gender divide in schools

The latest statistics from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) show that the school science gender divide in the UK is amongst the largest in the world, with boys outperforming girls by up to 13 per cent.

However, for some career paths, notably those in health and well being, there has been a steady shift of gender balance with more girls than boys studying these areas. This is the case at the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) where the first year cohort of the combined BSc Biological & Bioveterinary Sciences is 76 per cent female.

Andreas Schleicher, OECD special adviser on education, says aged 9 and 10 both girls and boys in the UK think science is really interesting, but by age 15 girls find it ‘boring’.

One reason could be that not enough is being done to highlight the reasons why girls should study science and the career opportunities on offer. The Council for Science and Technology have already criticized GCSEs/A-Levels for not being ‘practical enough’ and therefore not preparing young children for the realities of science careers.

Where the career path is clear (such as for medicine and veterinary medicine) girls are keen to study science subjects, which explains why the RVC has a very high proportion of female applicants. But a more worrying trend is that girls may have less belief in their own ability to “think like a scientist” compared to boys.

The OECD Report highlights that schools need to do more to encourage teenage girls to study science. Whilst schools have an important role to play to engage teenage girls with science, the onus is also on universities to ensure their outreach activities meet pupils’ needs. This is where the fields of Widening Participation/Access and Science Communication meet.

Science communication activities increasingly take place in non-science events. This trend originated in the US, for example taking outreach activities to markets and shopping malls, and it has translated well in the UK. RVC has been involved in both dedicated Science Festivals but also music festivals such as the Green Man Festival in Einstein’s Garden area.

We engage new audiences through public events that where researchers give mini lectures and offer hands on activities. These are suitable for teenagers upwards, but we have also started Family Fun Days, that bring the local community in to HEIs to engage with experts and see the normal person beneath the labcoat!

We encourage schools to continue engaging with universities and external organisations to facilitate visits to and from HE institutions. The importance of a focus for study – a light at the end of the tunnel which gives a reason to work hard – cannot be underestimated. But whilst hands on activities should be open to all, schools should not ignore websites aimed at sharing the work of gender role models in science. A recent example is http://trowelblazers.com/, led by the pioneering Paleontologist Dr Victoria Herridge.

Our own experience has been to encourage creativity on the part of school science teachers and our academic staff to work together in creating exciting activities relevant to the school curriculum. This might just be the encouragement a pupil needs to motivate them to pursue the sciences beyond the increasingly abstract school curriculum.

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