Why Girls Tend to Shun Math and Science

12/10/2013

Recently, the Brunel University in the UK announced that they would provide bursaries of £1,250 per month for 40 female engineering students studying for in their master's degrees. This is part of a financing program launched by the Higher Education Funding Council of England (HEFCE), which will cover over 2,800 master's students on 20 projects at 40 universities from January 2014 to the middle of 2015.


Why are female engineering students receiving special care and financial supports at Brunel? It is because the fact that only a quarter of the engineering master's students in that university are girls, and school heads feel they must do something to encourage girls to take up STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) studies. The gender gap on STEM studies in the UK has become increasingly huge: from 2010 to 2012, only 20% percent of the country's secondary school girls gained an A* at GCSE Math, comparing with that 50% boys achieving the same grade; the number of boys who took A-Level Physics was 4 times more than that of girls; in the year 2012, there were 12 times as many boys taking A-Level Computer Studies as girls. Two thirds of the girls studying science at university did not proceed to STEM-related careers. Such a gap at school has already shaped skewed career demography in the UK: merely 17% tech jobs are taken by women. For engineering jobs alone, female workers only make up 8%.


The Education Minister of the country, Elizabeth Truss, believed that there was no such gender gap in Singapore and Shanghai when interviewed by the Telegraph on Dec. 8, shortly after the 2012 PISA test results were published, in which Shanghai and Singapore topped the rank. Ms Truss may be wrong at this point, since it is very common to see a class full of girls in the department of languages and only a spot of girls in an engineering class of 100 in most Chinese universities. The gender gap in STEM studies and careers has been a global problem in many countries.


So why girls tend to shun STEM subjects and jobs? One main reason is the cultural stereotype held by the majority that boys generally do better in math-and-science-related subjects, while girls are not likely to achieve success in these fields. Conversely, people also have a wrong perception of "geeks", who are thought to be dirty men with long hairs sitting before computer all day coding and programming. In fact, experts have stated that girls are as competitive as boys in learning STEM subjects. As Ms Truss said, "The issue for girls is not competence, it's confidence." The stereotype of weakly-performing girls in math and science are holding girls away from the fields, on which efforts should be made to make a change. Moreover, some girls do not want to be "geeks" simply because the word in their minds is equal to "nerds". Such a perception is not true, either. Being a science researcher of and IT programmer, one can still get neatly dressed and work in the bright environment of an office building.


Another reason that results in girls shunning STEM lies in schools that are to blame. Some single-sex (girl-only) schools simply do not offer STEM courses for girls to choose; in some other schools, time schedules for STEM courses clash with art, music or drama activities, which prevents girls from participating in both. The demand of great exam grades in university admission also drives to girls' preference of more "safe" subjects such as foreign languages and arts, which they are more confident to get a higher grade in. The learning pattern of girls also differs from boys, which is often ignored by teachers and schools: most boys will not care about the mistakes they make while girls tend to be shy and cautious during their studies. In other words, girls usually do not take their first step forward as easily as boys do. Therefore, girls need more encouragement before they make up their mind to take on math or science learning.


CW Jobs, an IT recruitment company, carried out a survey last year and revealed that more than 60 percent of the IT companies wanted more females in the workplace. It is pointed out by both educators and company managers that at the basic level, STEM works requires nothing but logical thinking, but at advanced level, the job will be rely much on the ability to cooperate with others and work with teams, while women generally manage such skills better than men. Unbalanced STEM workforce comprised of a single sex will definitely harm a nation's economic development. Consequently, governments and schools should take this issue seriously and do more to encourage girls to get involved in STEM studies and careers.


The Brunel University has set a good example for all. Countries such as India, Brazil and South Africa have also done much to secure women's positions in STEM fields. It is high time that more measures should be taken to develop girls' interests and courage in STEM studies. And girls please keep in mind that there is no difference in ability—if you are determined to do, you can do it well.

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