Increasing the representation of women in STEM education and employment has been a long-term policy goal of both the Labour and Coalition governments. They have been motivated by concerns over equity in the STEM workforce and about maintaining national economic competitiveness. Initiatives to increase women’s participation in STEM began before these policies with feminist activism in the 1980s. The approaches developed there have continued, within organisations such as WISE (Women Into Science and Engineering), alongside corporate and policy schemes. Many of these have been short-term and they are currently dominated by STEM ambassadors, and local and national science fairs. While these are valuable, research in the US and the UK indicates both how early and how deeply STEM aspirations become fixed pointing to the need for more sustained interventions and ones that can address wider school cultures around STEM.
While Labour favoured targeted initiatives and gender audits, the Coalition favour ‘mainstreaming’, with a consequent loss of funding for key gender-specific STEM organisations, including the UKRC (UK Resource Centre for Women in SET). Alison Phipps’ and Janet Abbate’s historical research highlights how mainstreaming can lead to a loss of previous progress made in increasing the participation of women within STEM fields.
The ongoing ASPIRES study led by Louise Archer, among other research, highlights tensions between economic and equity rationales within policy. Notably, a focus on national competitiveness, has led to a preoccupation with the STEM ‘pipeline’ from school, via university STEM degree, to scientific and technical work. This is at the expense of attempts to increase participation in STEM subjects as part of developing young people’s mathematical and scientific literacies. Thus, there needs to be a focus on widening participation with multiple STEM routes rather than a prioritising of elite pathways.
Research on STEM and gender has focused on science and to a lesser extent mathematics, with far less work on computing and engineering. This is perhaps because computing has only recently become part of the formal school curriculum and engineering remains outside of this. Despite this imbalance, educational research across the STEM curriculum shows that the key issue for gender and STEM is no longer attainment, but participation and engagement, with girls and women far less likely than boys and men to choose to study and work in computing, engineering, mathematics and physics. Research has identified the importance of teachers’ expectations, alongside those of peers and family members, with boys more likely to be seen as ‘naturally able’ at these subjects. Thus, there is a need for gender equity issues to be part of initial teacher education, something which must be prioritised in the move from university- to school-based training.
Much research has focused on young people’s choices and aspirations. The ASPIRES study on science aspirations and work by Heather Mendick on mathematics and technology, point to the importance of identity issues in understanding gender patterns in STEM participation. Above all, they evidence tensions between dominant ideas of femininity and the images of STEM within schooling and wider culture. Computing, engineering, mathematics and physics are viewed as ‘harder’ and more ‘geeky’ than other subjects, and as less creative, less girlie and less caring. Factors beyond schooling, notably family cultures, news reporting, online media and film and television are crucial in maintaining these images of STEM subjects and those who do them. Thus schools need to critically engage young people in how gender and STEM are constructed within society, alongside delivering the academic STEM curriculum.
Within schooling, the idea that STEM subjects are harder than other subjects is supported by how grouping by ‘ability’ begins earlier and is more widely practised in STEM than in other subjects. This associates competition and difficultly with mathematics and science in ways that, as work led by Jo Boaler shows, disproportionately affect the enjoyment and confidence of girls. Similarly the constrained curriculum and assessment in STEM, with a return to triple science and to emphasis on formal algorithms in mathematics, impacts on young people’s relationships to the subject. The research strongly supports moves to all ability grouping, a reduction in high stakes assessment in science and mathematics, and greater freedom within the curriculum.