Women in STEM

Liz Thomas and Robert Jones are co-authors of new report launched 31 March Through both eyes. The case for a gender lens in STEM, published by ScienceGrrl. The report reviews much of the public discourse and reporting on participation in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects. It argues for the need for leadership and collaboration to bust both the STEM myth and the gender myth. To read the report click here.


It is old news that women are still vastly under-represented in leadership positions in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) – and that in areas like physics and engineering, girls and young women aren’t even getting a foot in the door. The percentage of female A-level physics students has hovered around 20% for the past 20 years or more, and the UK has the lowest proportion of female engineers in the EU.

There is broad recognition that girls and women represent untapped talent, and that enabling them to realise their potential is as much about growing the UK economy as it is about social justice. Why then, despite widespread concern, is progress frustratingly slow?

ScienceGrrl has looked to the literature and spoken to stakeholders in the STEM sector to explore this question with respect to access to STEM, we plan to examine career progression at a later stage. We find that girls and young women are being kept out by the cultural straightjackets imposed on them by society. In this report, we use a ‘gender lens’ to reveal how cultural messages translate into invisible hurdles that are holding girls back and limiting their personal, and earning, potential:

‘Think of the gender lens as putting on spectacles. Out of one lens you see the participation, needs and realities of women. Out of the other you see the participation, needs and realities of men. Your sight or vision is the combination of what both eye sees.’ – UNESCO (2006)

Our society isn’t neutral, it is highly gendered. The reason these hurdles are invisible is that they are so deeply-embedded. We must look through both eyes to detect the unconscious biases that permeate our society, homes, classrooms and workplaces before we can start to dismantle them. Empowering individuals with real choice and freeing ourselves from social stereotyping and cultural expectations is better for girls and women, but also for boys and men.

So, how do we begin to address this? When it comes to choosing STEM at school, university or as a career, the literature is clear that there are three key factors. We have framed them as a mental checklist that applies to all students, regardless of gender:

i. Relevance of STEM = Is it for people like me?
ii. Perceived ability = Do I feel confident?
iii. Science capital = Can I see the pathways and possibilities?

Young women receive messages about themselves and the opportunities available to them from wider society, family and friends, the classroom and the workplace. The balance of these messages is crucial. The ‘girls’ toys’ that value physical perfection over adventure or intelligence, and the objectification of women in the media are just two examples of how the roles and capabilities of women are diminished in wider society. We are all exposed to these messages. Casual reliance on such stereotypes leads to unconscious bias in all areas of girls’ lives. If this is left unchallenged, girls and young women find their cultural straightjackets tightened and they are less likely to say ‘Yes’ to STEM. Stereotypes and unconscious bias undermine real choice. We must start to take them seriously.

STEM also suffers from a stereotype that says it belongs to those who are ‘white, middle class, male and brainy’. We argue that we must challenge these two competing stereotypes, not conflate them. We don’t need to make STEM about lipstick, or make girls and women feel they have to conform. Instead, the solution is to make STEM inclusive by showing that it is about creativity, imagination, changing the world, and that it offers a wealth of opportunity – that there are many ways into STEM, and even more ways to go forwards. Gender is only one aspect of the STEM stereotype, and so an active focus on busting it open has positive implications for widening the talent pool by appealing to a diverse range of identities.

Initiatives that seek to ‘encourage’ girls into STEM are misplaced. The implication is that girls must change. Instead, we believe the responsibility for closing the STEM gender gap should be placed on the people who have influence in our society and education system. Girls are treated differently in the classroom and careers advice is far from actively inclusive. This separation of girls and young women from the mainstream is the fundamental roadblock.

Progress will require integration on two levels. Firstly, the needs and realities of girls and young women must be consistently embedded into all messaging from the STEM sector. Secondly, we need cohesion between the stakeholders attempting to address this problem. In writing this report we have encountered a cacophony of initiatives and organisations, who are often trying to achieve everything alone without taking advantage of tremendous potential for synergy. We are calling on the STEM sector to re-evaluate opportunities for collaboration.

We call on the Government to show leadership in this field. There is a wealth of academic knowledge about gender science and gender equality; this needs to be integrated into public policy. We want Government, the public and the private sectors to work together to empower individual free choice.

We see this report as an opportunity to start a conversation between the Government, academics, educators, the STEM community, retailers and the media about how we start to look through both eyes in order to embed gender equality and broader inclusion issues into better STEM education and careers advice for everyone.
Click here for the recommendation and the full report.