How can school leaders help fix the leaky STEM pipeline?

By Christina Astin @ChristinaAstin

The proportion of girls choosing A level physics and pursuing STEM careers has remained stubbornly low for decades. But recent research should give us hope. We understand much better now what helps fix the leaky STEM pipeline. Unfortunately, society still peddles the view that science is not for girls. Does it matter and can school leaders help?

Does it Matter? Yes.

  • Girls are still having to battle negative stereotypes and many who could have happy and fulfilled STEM careers are put off.
  • STEM businesses are keen to employ more women because a diverse workforce makes them more successful. Some products designed by male-only teams have failed spectacularly.
  • Our planet needs more scientists: wind turbine engineers, epidemiologists, meteorologists, as well as people who ‘get’ science even if they don’t work directly ‘in’ science. Society can’t afford to discourage any one cohort from contributing.

In some pockets around the world women scientists outnumber men. But the pipeline for STEM generally leaks from GCSE science (48% girls) right through A levels, degrees (26%) and apprenticeships (8%) into work (24%). There is no good reason for this imbalance.

Careers advice has tended to focus on becoming a Scientist and looking at what Scientists do. This has been off-putting for some who equate Scientist with the societal stereotype of a white male in a labcoat. A welcome change in the last few years has come in the form of the My Skills My Life project from WISE. This draws out a student’s attributes and personal traits and shows them that there are people working in STEM who are like them which can be particularly encouraging for girls.

How can school leaders help?

Big initiatives are great yet take time to implement.  Small changes of emphasis can be quick wins and make a noticeable impact in a school.

  1. Whole-school ethos

How visible is diversity in your school? Make it a standing item on every SLT agenda and identify girls in STEM within your diversity policy. A Gender Champion can challenge mindsets through CPD and monitor school policies, curriculum, outcomes and language. Consider running a staff survey or testing unconscious bias.

Promote debate in departments and encourage mutual classroom observation on gender balance. Some schools have experimented with teaching boys and girls in separate classes - a controversial move - but single-sex science clubs, careers events or workplace trips (where self-selection can often introduce bias) may be worth exploring.

Are pastoral staff looking out for the well-being of gender minorities – boys doing French as well as girls doing computer science?

  1. Curriculum

Schemes of learning should reflect diversity, as observed through intent, implementation and impact. In my subject, physics, it’s so easy to introduce bias through a thoughtless choice of examples but colleagues can work together to identify more balanced contexts.

Do science teachers have the information they need to meet the Gatsby careers education benchmarks?

Do your STEM teachers collaborate? Science, maths, technology and computer science departments can operate in silos, but there is teaching time to be saved and improved retention if teaching orders and methodology are triangulated.

  1. Teaching expertise

It is hard to recruit good science teachers. The average career length of a science teacher is now just 5 years, barely enough to have mastered the craft of teaching. All students deserve excellent teachers, but research shows us that girls depend even more than boys on teaching quality, and A level choices reflect their feelings of confidence in those teaching the subject. Attracting and retaining the teachers to make this impact is crucial.

Both subject knowledge and pedagogy can be taught on the job, but only if time is given to high quality mentoring and external expertise. Many organisations exist to provide such CPD, some at little or no cost, such as the Institute of Physics andSTEM Learning.

  1. Introduce role models

You can’t be what you can’t see – meeting inspiring role models is a crucial part of the jigsaw. Starting in school, could female A level scientists mentor younger students or help out at the science club?

Choosing A levels is the first big leak in the pipeline. Rather than confining this to a single information evening the Gatsby benchmarks now encourage a coordinated programme of careers education for all.

Can you invite alumni, governors, parents or local university staff to give talks to aspiring scientists or mentor them through their HE/careers choices? There are many external agencies who can help, including your local STEM Ambassadors network and Speakers For Schools.

Finally, it’s vital to engage families to support your school’s messages about counteracting negative stereotypes. I was told countless times at Parents’ Evenings “Gosh you don’t look like a physics teacher” or “Well of course I was never any good at science – haha!”. These were not helpful messages for their daughters. If they don’t work in science themselves parents may well need some information about the opportunities for their children, from technical apprenticeships to graduate careers.

For further support, check out WISE’s fabulous resources; the Institute of Physics has taken a lead in this area, beyond just physics; the Gender Action resources page is a brilliant one-stop compendium. This report on the Gender Action pilot has an excellent draft action plan as a starting point for school leaders.

Don’t be daunted by the scale of the problem – the responsibility for stemming the leaky pipeline does not rest with schools alone. But if leaders can raise awareness of the issues, engage with the WomenEd agenda and help our girls make free, informed choices for their futures, we all benefit.


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