Q&A: Engaging girls and women in science

Published: 11 Feb 2020

Author: Clare Gartland
Q&A: Engaging girls and women in science

Today is the International Day of Girls and Women in Science, a day marked by the United Nations to recognise the critical role women and girls play in science and technology. We spoke to 2015 Fellow Clare Garland who explored student ambassadors' contribution to motivating achievement in STEM subjects in the USA.

Why do you think the International Day of Girls and Women in Science is important?

CG: There is certainly a need for more STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) skills to support the UK economy, but issues of gender equality are also at stake. Inequalities in access to STEM careers remain embedded in our society. The 2018 State of Engineering Report states that only 8% of apprenticeships in engineering are taken by women and only 16% make up engineering degree students. Jobs in STEM fields, at all levels, are generally significantly better paid than those traditionally dominated by women. Therefore women are economically disadvantaged through not accessing STEM jobs.

CG: Girls as young as seven are significantly less likely to say they are interested in becoming an engineer than boys, and these differences in aspiration and expectation become deep-rooted over time. Socially acceptable identities for girls and boys, forms of play, parental expectations and practices in schools are all contributing factors. Many children, especially girls, see STEM careers as for other, smarter people and not for people like themselves. A key to enabling young people to see STEM subjects and careers as possible, seems to lie in providing more opportunities for interactions with people they can relate to, who have themselves successfully progressed in STEM subjects and careers.

How did you explore the participation of girls and women in science during your Fellowship?

CG: Problems of unequal participation are a concern in other countries, and in the USA university STEM outreach activities have been quite extensive. During my Fellowship, I visited the USA to explore the operation and structure of different university STEM outreach programmes that use university student ambassadors from STEM disciplines to work with school students. I was keen to see if student ambassadors are able to connect with younger students and, if so, what features of outreach programmes support this. I was also interested in whether female student ambassadors and ambassadors from other under-represented groups were able to challenge younger students’ self-identity in relation to STEM subjects and promote engagement with these subject areas.

Clare Gartland, 2015 Fellow and Associate Professor of Education at the University of Suffolk

What were your main takeaways from your Fellowship?

CG: An important difference between the practices of the USA universities I visited and many in the UK is the inclusive STEM outreach activity taking place in America with whole classes of primary and younger secondary school students. In UK universities, activity often focuses on older secondary school students who have already shown an interest in STEM. Engaging more inclusively with younger students seems vital if we are to effectively challenge gendered patterns of progression.

CG: A key challenge, highlighted by my study, is funding such activity. There is a demand from funders and leadership teams for immediate results, in terms of increasing numbers of girls and other targeted groups going to university. This encourages universities to focus on working with selective groups of older school students rather than working with younger children.

CG: My fellowship also reinforced views that I formed from researching practices in UK universities - that ambassadors are not always viewed positively by young people or, even when they are, they are not necessarily seen as a desired or possible future self by younger students.

CG: Learning contexts (the location of activity and the opportunities provided for meaningful interaction) are significant in whether girls relate to ambassadors and identify with them. Learning contexts where ambassadors are positioned as peers, and work collaboratively on hands-on activities, appear to be particularly valuable in encouraging school students to identify with ambassadors. It is also not enough that ambassadors are girls. Other aspects of their identities are important too, including ethnicity, cultural background, interests and class.

What have you been working on since you returned from your Fellowship travels?

CG: Since returning to the UK, I have disseminated my findings to a wide audience of educators and have presented at conferences for the British Education Research Association and the Society for Research into Higher Education, as well as at other events. I have a chapter in a forthcoming book on STEM education, STEM in science education and S in STEM: from pedagogy to learning, and an entry about STEM ambassadors in a new Sage encyclopaedia about Higher Education.

CG: I am also working with NERUPI, a network of 62 universities focused on evaluating and researching university participation interventions, and am developing a questionnaire to explore existing ambassador practices and training. In March 2020, I am leading an initial workshop for NERUPI members on student ambassador outreach activity. I hope to extend this collaborative work with staff and student ambassadors in NERUPI member universities to identify and share best practice in STEM ambassador outreach, supporting this through insights from my Fellowship.

Why is it important that more girls and women participate in science?

CG: Women and girls need to have a say in the technological and scientific developments that will change our world and the way we live in it. While there are still challenges for girls in these male dominated fields, it is vital that we change the status quo.

CG: Women and girls are urgently needed in further and higher education in STEM, and in the STEM workplace, to address skills shortages that will impact on the economy, and also to ensure gender equality more broadly.

CG: If we can find ways to overcome some of the issues and obstacles which currently make progression to STEM difficult for girls, it may be that we can not only promote gender equality but also facilitate easier progression to STEM across the board.

Read Clare's report

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