Are women and girls losing out?

Caroline Keep

Caroline is a physics teacher at Penketh High School in Warrington. She is the Director of Spark Penketh, the first school makerspace in the UK and has a particular interest in Stem/ Tech for young girls. Winner of the TES New Teacher of the Year in 2018 for her work on STEAM learning.

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Reports in August of more girls taking GCSEs in computing was a welcome sign for most of us in education. A rise of 7.2% was brilliant news. However, beneath this statistic was the somewhat worrying fact that boys still made up 78.6% of entries and even with the rise in girls, only 17,158 of them took GCSE computing across the UK. With computing, design technology, science and creative skills becoming more and more important to the economy and future job market, I must ask: ‘Are women and girls losing out?’

Long have we seen the rise of science and computing programs ostensibly designed for girls in our schools, and although this seems to be working for science, this does not appear to be the case for computing. In 2014, approximately 40% of entries for the ICT exam were from girls - but 5 years later, they don’t seem to be taking up computing in the same numbers. Computing, it would appear, is not alone in this respect. The Durham Commission reported this week an overall downturn of entries in Media, Film, the Performing Arts and Design Technology, and is a crucial read for any teacher! 

In its annual analysis of GCSE entries, the Wise Campaign this year reported that entries across the UK in Design & Technology were down significantly once again for both boys and girls, the latter by 29% - although, as with computing, those girls that did take these subjects consistently outperformed boys. We seem to be in danger of losing female talent.

It’s clear, we still have a long way to go for girls and not a lot of time to fill that widening digital skills gap.

A Microsoft report on "How role models are changing the face of STEM” stated: “The number of UK girls interested in STEM increases when they have role models compared to those who do not (30% of girls without a role model report an interest in STEM subjects, versus 41% with role models) The reverse is also true, that having a role model significantly reduces the number of UK girls who say that they are less interested in STEM subjects (43% of girls without a role model are less interested in STEM subjects, versus 28% of girls with a role model)” 

Where are the female role models in our schools? 

Dig deep into the Initial Teacher Training (ITT) data for 2018-2019, and you might spot a few differences between male and female role models in certain subjects. Whilst most STEM subjects were equally represented by men, others were not. There were significant differences in Computing ITT trainees where 68% were male and 32% female last year, and there were still fewer women teaching Physics (29%). What’s that saying…’If you can’t see it, you can’t be it?’.

Gender stereotypes in GCSE entries across a range of arts have also grown over the past five years, with an emergence of a bigger gap between the numbers of boys and girls taking GCSE music and performing arts, blamed largely on the EBacc. Interestingly, 74% of ITT trainees in drama were female. Perhaps ‘seeing it’ and ‘being it’ works both ways.

What about our leadership? Yes, we have female leaders in STEM and other subjects, and yes, we have amazing computing role models I hear you cry… and I entirely agree. But, these sadly appear to be the exception rather than the rule, as a quick look at the School leadership in England 2010 to 2016: characteristics and trends DfE report published in 2018 will show you. 

As their analysis pointed out, one reason for this could be the speed of career progression for women, or rather the lack of it. They state: “… career progression to both first leadership and headteacher roles was on average faster for male teachers than their female counterparts”.

How can we make sure we seek the best talent regardless of gender?

The answer, I believe, is to make sure we continue to fight stereotypes within our schools, in lessons and in professional contexts. The truth is, we need both men and women equally represented in areas of leadership, and as role models for our young people across all subjects. Sadly, at the moment, there are still far too many imbalances. With around 3 out of 4 school teachers being female, we should not be short of talent…. So, why not go and check out your staff room. I bet there is loads in there.

For further reading and practical advice to close gender gaps in your school, visit The Gender Equality Collective website.

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