Improving Gender Balance
Earlier this year we published a guest blog from Emma, one of our UKESF Scholars; it was a really insightful piece entitled ‘Where are the Queues for the Loos?’. Reflecting on the woeful gender imbalance in the Electronics sector she suggested that stereotyping may be evidenced in schools. I was thinking about this recently when I attended an event at the Institute of Physics to promote their latest report, ‘Improving Gender Balance’.
We know that whilst the proportion of girls studying Maths at A-Level has risen to around 40%, the percentage taking Physics has remained stubbornly low – no more 20% over the last 30 years. As Physics is a key enabling subject for those going on to study Electronics, then it is easy to see why this has perpetuated the gender imbalance in our sector.
So what did the Institute of Physics report find?
One of the key things was that gendered teaching means that girls appear less likely to develop a physics “identity” – they may enjoy Physics at school and do well at it, but don’t self-identify with the subject and, as a result, tend to opt for other subjects after the age of 16. Similarly, part of the appeal of Physics is the intellectual challenge that studying it provides. But female students may have less resilience when things get difficult, due to messages that they shouldn’t be studying it to begin with.
This certainly stuck a chord with what we know about Electronics.
The study noted that better teaching can and does improve progression rates. Therefore, initiatives like our Music Mixer project in collaboration with the University of Southampton and the associated CPD course for A-Level Physics teachers will certainly begin to help give teachers more confidence and knowledge about Electronics. However, the study found that the most impressive results were obtained when the whole school was involved to tackle inherent biases and stereotyping, with the number of girls taking AS Physics more than trebling. This is a very significant increase.
If we look for parallels with Electronics, then it is clear we need widespread buy-in at all levels to address the imbalance. We can’t afford to ignore nearly half of the population if we are serious about tackling the UK’s shortage of Electronics designers and engineers. Electronics is a creative and innovative subject. Fundamentally, girls could enjoy it if they didn’t so often rule it out at an early age due to stereotyping and biases, and if it were taught in a way that engages them.
Here at the UKESF, we always ensure that our outreach activities are based on gender equality. We actively promote all our opportunities to girls and we certainly don’t support robot ‘wars’-type activities. That’s not to say we don’t do ‘competitive’, but activities should aim to promote innovation, creativity and problem-solving in order to improve our society, not solely to make better robots to fight each other.
We want to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to explore their own interests and talents unencumbered by society’s expectations of them. This brings us back to Emma and the other female UKESF Scholars. We are pleased that this year we received over 30 applications from female students and that 14% of scholarships were awarded to females. With the support of more companies, then we can do even more to help female undergraduates gain vital work experience in the future. If you would like to learn more about our UKESF Scholarship Scheme, then the latest Guide for Employers can be downloaded here.