British girls have generally shied away from careers in engineering and physics. Samantha Laurie reveals the formula for change
In a school hall in Redhill, an unusual form of speed dating is under way: a group of young teenage girls are moving from desk to desk with a list of questions. The ‘candidates’ are molecular biologists, space scientists, and civil and environmental engineers. All are female.
The questions come thick and fast. What does the job entail? What’s exciting about it? How did you get into it? After 10 minutes the bell rings and the girls move on.
For these 12- and 13-year-olds, yet to choose their GCSEs, it is likely to be their first encounter with engineering as a career. For Warwick School, the co-ed state school that runs the event for its own pupils and those at neighbouring schools, it’s an attempt to showcase an industry in which women are woefully underrepresented, and which faces a chronic skills shortage all round.
By 2020, engineering will absorb one sixth of all school leavers. Industries such as renewable energy, power and electronics are soaking up graduates and need to double their intake of entrants with degrees. The sector generates 25% of the turnover of UK industry – three times as much as retail. Yet it draws on just half of the population: a paltry 6% of engineers are women, the worst figure in Europe.
The problem is physics, as shown by one truly shaming statistic: in 2011, 49% of co-ed state schools sent not a single girl to study A level physics. Unlike chemistry and biology – gateway qualifications for medicine in which the gender mix is almost equal – just one in five A level physics students is female. A disproportionate number of these come from single-sex schools, hinting that the real obstacle is ingrained sexism, not the subject’s fundamental lack of appeal.
Now one school, Lampton School in Hounslow, has taken action. Three years ago, it had 25 students taking A level physics – all boys except one. Today it has 50, one quarter of whom are girls, and science teacher Jessica Hamer credits various initiatives: bringing in female physicists and engineers to talk about their careers; using gender-neutral analogies to explain concepts (eg rollercoasters instead of guns); and teaching girls in single sex groups, or in mixed groups with girls as leaders.
But the key ingredient was a hefty slice of girl power.
“We spent a day talking to Year 10 girls about gender, ambition and stereotyping,” explains Jessica, “bringing in influential, successful women to discuss feminism. Once you have this ‘girls can do’ message running through the school, you start to see girls thinking differently about their choices.”
Dressing up engineering to appeal to ‘caring, sharing’ female stereotypes is, of course, galling to all involved. But girls do respond better once they grasp the impact of a scientific career on society, claims Estelle Rowe of the Engineering Development Trust, which runs week-long, residential courses for A level students. This year, one of the most popular with girls is Humanitarian Engineering, looking at how engineers rebuild communities and infrastructure in disaster and conflict zones.
Since future engineering concerns will be more about climate change and energy than cars and planes, we should be doing more to sell science to younger girls, says Estelle. At the University of Surrey, where applications for science courses are amongst the highest in the land, EDT runs a four-day Headstart course to illustrate different types of engineering. It also offers non-residential courses pitched at younger girls.
This is crucial, as the dirt and overalls image of engineering is formed early, ending with a pernicious sense that physics is somehow unfeminine. By 13, a whopping 80% of girls opt for the lighter double science GCSE, already seemingly ruling themselves out of scientific careers.
Several things are required, says the Institute of Physics (IOP): more specialist teachers; a better route from double science GCSE to A level science; a whole school approach to gender equality; and independent Ofsted assessment of a school’s success at getting girls into science A levels.
But parental expectation is always the most powerful influence of all. Once it became commonly held wisdom that a good maths
A level was the best pointer to a successful career, girls began applying for maths in droves.
Disenfranchising half the population from an industry that is changing the way we live, breathe and communicate is not only an affront to natural justice, but an economic and ethical risk. It is with good reason that the IOP has adopted its new slogan: ‘Physics is a Feminist Issue.’
For Headstart visit: etrust.org.uk