On 17th December, I took ScienceGrrl to Number 10 Downing Street for a roundtable on how to crack the issue of gender imbalance in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics). The location was impressive, not for the surroundings but for the real chance of progress offered by high-level discussions. Our place at the table signifies a 360-degree approach to the problem – and that the work we are doing is making a difference.

Anna Zecharia at No 10 roundtable

At ScienceGrrl we are passionate about girls and women in STEM. Our 2013 calendar was a positive statement about diversity: showcasing a variety of women and careers that use STEM skills. It catalysed the formation of ScienceGrrl as a grassroots organisation that proactively supports women through our local chapters and our online presence. An important part of our vision is to harness the passion of our members, channelling them through existing local education and enrichment initiatives to act as role models for the next generation. This is key. Role models can’t exist in a vacuum – they need to be visible and accessible to girls through a coordinated and sustained framework of activity.

That is why the roundtable and its outcomes could finally represent a tipping point. The Number 10 Policy Unit assembled an impressive array of stakeholders – from fellow on-the-ground organisations Stemettes and Little Miss Geek, to major industry, education & enrichment specialists, learned societies and Government ministers.

The meeting was a call to arms. Why is it, after years of hearing the same shocking statistics, nothing much has changed when it comes to access and progress in STEM for girls and women? It is time for a serious rethink about how we all approach this issue. As Michael Gove, MP (Secretary of State for Education) put it in his opening remarks: “there is a unified crossparty desire to solve this problem…but [there can be] no feel-good quack remedies, we must proceed on the basis of evidence” and allow individuals “to be the authors of their own life story”. So how do we make it a reality?

David Halpern (Director of Behavioural Insights, Cabinet Office) continued proceedings saying “let’s just get this out of the way” – and in 5 exquisite minutes exploded any talk of innate differences in the ability or motivation of girls to study STEM. I was relieved because there are huge gaps between academic gender science and the culturally accepted myths that perpetuate gender stereotypes. This is something we’ve been discussing at ScienceGrrl for a long time – also see our recent post on neurosexism – so the chance to have a conversation without going over stale ground struck a positive note at the very beginning of the meeting. Of course, deconstructing these myths in the wider world is a battle not yet won. Challenging mindsets, stereotypes and lack of confidence are not things that will just happen on their own. There needs to be an active commitment to change the messages girls receive from wider society, their families, the classroom and the workplace.

Elizabeth Truss, MP (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Childcare) echoed this, pointing to the latest PISA league tables showing major gender differences in science in the UK but none in other cultures. She despaired at our anti-maths culture and laid some of the blame on our failure to communicate that STEM skills are universal and that parents “haven’t got the message that maths is insurance against unemployment”. She said that we need to “link more closely” the needs of business and the education system.

Releasing girls’ potential by solving the gender imbalance in take up of these subjects is a surefire way to raise STEM-literacy in the UK – and so, as Andrew Mennear (Head of UK Government Affairs, BP) stressed, it is “business-critical, not social responsibility”. Sir Richard Olver (Chairman, BAE Systems) agreed, saying “we’re in a very bad place considering how many companies are doing things”.

David Willetts, MP (Minister of State for Universities) recognised that there is a “bigger fork in the road at 16 years old than in any other country” and questioned the wisdom of the early specialisation expected in the UK, asking what Universities could do to allow a broader education at foundation years. Julie Maxton (Executive Director, Royal Society) doubted whether people understand the scale of the arts versus science decision. Elizabeth Truss rightly pointed out that 10-14 years old is the age at which children make this decision, and also the age they are the most likely to have a non-specialist maths/science teacher.

Here the issue of girls got a little bit lost. This, I believe, was a good thing. It underlines the fact that there are many challenges in STEM education and careers development – for everyone, not just for girls. Boys are just more likely to see STEM as ‘for me’ from the outset. That is where the real challenge is.

The point I made is that we cannot proceed by treating girls as ‘other’. We must integrate role models and the active challenging of gender stereotypes into good teaching and good careers advice for all. As Philip Greenish (Chief Executive, Royal Academy of Engineering) said: “this cannot be an ad campaign”. Good teaching and good work-related learning (including careers advice and work experience) is about helping students engage with a subject/career in a meaningful way.

The trouble is, girls start on the back-foot when it comes to reconciling their personal identity with STEM. Why is the situation markedly different in single-sex education? One reason is that in single-sex education girls’ active self-concept is one of a student, not of a girl with all the attached stereotypes and lower expectation that entails. We must create a different world. One that allows girls to realise their potential, and never makes them doubt their right to be there.

Christmas tree in Downing StreetWe believe there was a real commitment in the room to solve this problem, and are pleased to say that this meeting wasn’t a flash in the pan. We and all the other attendees have already been contacted by the Number 10 Policy Unit to keep the conversation going – and to expand on the practical solutions that were also discussed. More on those as they develop.

Michael Hayman (CoFounder, Seven Hills Group) summed up the mood with a quote from Mad Men’s Don Draper: “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation”. Let’s move from the negative rhetoric “convincing” girls to do STEM. Let’s move forwards by showcasing the enormous potential of STEM: the many doors that it can open and the range of careers undertaken by a range of men and women. Science is for everyone.

There is lot’s to be done – and we can’t wait to get started. See you in 2014!

Dr Anna Zecharia

Dr Anna Zecharia

Anna is Head of Education, Training and Policy at the British Pharmacological Society. She is currently leading a research programme to advance understanding of UK pharmacology education, research, and impact. Anna is also responsible for the Women in Pharmacology Advisory Group at the Society. She also oversees ScienceGrrl's Communications and invests a significant proportion of her time in our policy work. Anna is always on the look out for a good restaurant, exhibition, or pop up something or other - but tries to offset it all with a proper dose of yoga.
Dr Anna Zecharia
Dr Anna Zecharia

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