Whose job is it to improve female participation in science subjects?

Dr Ben Pilgrim gives a demonstration at the all-female Corpus Christi STEM summer school Image credit: Xiaoye Chen

A momentary glance at the 2014 Undergraduate Admissions Statistics is all that is needed to reveal the stark gender inequality which dominates the sciences at Cambridge*. In 2014 there were 6,174 applications for Science Courses by males compared to mere 3,706 female applicants. The disparity is stark, but unsurprising. As recent research from Cambridge Professor Dame Athene Donald reaffirms, the underrepresentation of women in STEM subjects is decided long before the process of applying to University — it is something which mars each and every stage of educational development.

Donald argues “There are people who think what children do at four is irrelevant to their A-level choices, but I’m not so sure…. If they have always just played with dolls - and dolls in a stereotypically female situation, such as worrying about hairstyle or making tea - then how can they imagine themselves as engineers or chemists?”

So if this issue begins in early childhood as Donald suggests - long before Cambridge or University are understandable concepts for these children -  whose responsibility is it to lead the drive for change?

Cambridge prides itself on its Outreach and Access Scheme, and as a world leading educational institution surely has an obligation to combat this incredible gender imbalance and improve participation rates. Our University cannot pass off 63.2% of the ‘brightest scientific hopes’ of the future supposedly being male as a coincidence, or some kind of bizarre natural selection: in reality, this is an unjust consequence of inherent educational sexism.

But it would be wrong to suggest that our Access Scheme currently is well suited to or at all geared towards tackling gender imbalance. In fact, the pursuit of gender equality in education takes the form of a cavernous black hole when it comes to the Access Scheme; a black hole that features only one shining, yet unfortunately faltering, light — the Women's Access Campaign. A campaign which suffers from a lack of publicity, as well as a damaging focus solely on colleges in which there is a great disparity in admissions between the genders, rather than the University as a whole.

Indeed, even the Access Scheme in its conventional aim of improving numbers of state school applications has its limitations, particularly in its potential to encourage female applications. The greatest issue facing the scheme is that there is little to no consistency across the colleges in terms of the quality of Access provision; varying size of link areas, school relations and enthusiasm of committees mean that Access can significantly lack efficiency and effectivity. The current Access Scheme is far from perfect, and this year must take on the additional incredibly difficult challenges of tackling the abolition of both AS Levels and Maintenance Grants. If we were to overload the Access Scheme with the added responsibility of heading the Cambridge campaign for greater STEM participation by female students, we could in fact damage the university’s effort to widen participation as a whole.  

Rather, encouraging both female STEM participation and in turn applications to sciences at Cambridge needs to be considered as a separate issue to the Access Campaign, and needs specific and well considered attention. We cannot forget that the gender imbalance in STEM subjects is not isolated to state schools, and therefore the Access Scheme is not best placed in terms of having the necessary contacts or networks to facilitate real change. What is needed is a dedicated organisation of scientists, gender equality campaigners, and access workers to collaborate on a scheme which works with female students in isolation. We need to, in this specific field, adopt a gendered approach of positive discrimination in order to oppose the fierce gender binary of our education system. In my experience, mixed gendered taster sessions and practicals quite simply aren’t the best way to encourage female participation in the sciences as the trends that exist in schools and discourage girls from taking up STEM subjects are also damagingly present in these sessions.

However, it’s also impossible to rely on a series of taster sessions or summer schools organised by Cambridge to solve the issue of STEM participation. This educational gender imbalance starts in school and it is there where the issue must be tackled head on. Cambridge cannot be a constant in the lives of school children as it simply does not dictate their education at the crucial ages at which these gender norms and divisions are enforced and affirmed — yet primary and secondary schools are. It is these schools that ultimately steer the direction of the GCSE and A-Level choices of girls and thus these schools that will determine the future of STEM participation. Therefore Cambridge and other leading universities must establish initiatives which aim to work in collaboration with schools and children of all ages on a permanent, not fleeting, basis.

Day trips and impressive fire-based science demonstrations for female students are all well and good; but it is consistent reinforcement that girls belong in STEM subject and have a worthwhile, and valued position in science that needs to be achieved. Universities cannot swoop in in Year 12 and expect to solve years of imbalance created by a schooling system which remains fundamentally dominated by gendered stereotypes, toys, and subject expectation.

We need the establishment of solid, long term projects with schools which recognise the need not only to work temporarily with small visiting groups, but more importantly the school itself and provide training for staff to help to eradicate traditional expectations of the conventional ‘STEM Student’.

Gendered access work is it seems the sole solution to the incredible gender imbalance in the Sciences, like any good scientist knows — collaboration is vital, and our Universities simply cannot do it alone

 

*Cambridge ‘Science’ Courses here refer to Computer Science, Engineering, Mathematics, Medicine, Medicine Graduate Course, Natural Sciences, Psychological & Behavioural Sciences, Veterinary Medicine


**Percentage of successful male applicants for Science, Undergraduate Admissions Statistics 2014

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