BBC Two recently broadcasted an insightful documentary, which explored the behaviour of seven and eight year-olds when gendered toys were taken away from the classroom. ‘No more boys and girls: can our kids go gender free?’ followed a Year 3 class from Lanesend Primary School in the Isle of Wight as Doctor Javid embarked on a six-week experiment to see if he could close the gaps in achievement and behaviour between girls and boys. Initially, girls defined themselves by looks and underestimated their own intelligence, often inaccurately describing their abilities in STEM subjects, specifically maths, as below what they were achieving. Therefore, it really came as no surprise to me to read that female candidates make up just 27 per cent of further maths candidates at A-level. Meanwhile boys demonstrated overconfident behaviour and trouble expressing emotions.
By the end of the six weeks, bad behaviour amongst boys was down by 57 per cent and the girls were displaying more confidence. The documentary also questioned how children are affected by gender bias – considering the skills they develop and subjects they are interested in, with boys seeing sewing as something ‘girly’, for example. This got me thinking, beyond gender-neutral toys, what can we do to make science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects more accessible to girls?
I think something we can learn from the BBC documentary is that it helps to introduce initiatives at a younger age. Children will feel more confident in their abilities if there is a sense of familiarity, helping them to enjoy the subject as well. Injecting STEM with creativity can also support children in having fun with the subjects and there are plenty of resources that help teachers to achieve this.
Initiatives like Digital Schoolhouse, which uses play-based learning to engage pupils and teachers with the computing curriculum, are a great way to take inspiration from others in your community. Each Digital Schoolhouse hosts workshops to offer local primary and secondary schools lessons with cross-curriculum links to the core and foundation subjects, helping them to create an immersive experience for students.
Similarly, global non-profit project, HundrED, is collecting 100 innovations from Finland, and a further 100 from around the world to share best practice techniques. The projects reflect some of the most innovative and creative ways of engaging students, such as using augmented and virtual reality to teach children the basics of 3D printing. Although the HundrED projects aims to engage children with their education more generally, applying findings and techniques from this initiative to STEM can position these subjects in a way in which girls may be more responsive to.
As the Headteacher of Lanesend brilliantly explained, engaging girls with STEM subjects and careers is about helping them to see themselves as “equal in confidence, aspirations and beliefs.”
For girls, showing them that STEM can lead to a range of professions, from coding to product design, can help break away from gender bias. Thinking outside the box when it comes to teaching these subjects can open the students’ eyes to how science and technology can be used in the real world. LEGO Education does this by hosting practical workshops for teachers to demonstrate how computing and robotics in the classroom can be applied to real-life applications that are both current and relevant to pupils. For example, using sensors to demonstrate how electric doors operate or programming robotic cars to replicate how driverless vehicles may work. Seeing how computing and related subjects work in practice encourages students to understand the purpose of what is being taught, be able to relate to it and maybe even picture themselves applying it to a future career.
From an industry perspective, we need girls to engage with STEM subjects so that we don’t miss out on a large pool of untapped talent. Bringing it into the classroom at an earlier age, using innovative techniques and best practice learned from experts in our sector helps children to see that there are no ‘girl jobs’ or ‘boy jobs’. Finally, we must support these efforts by ensuring we have visible role models so that young women can see clear pathways for their future and feel they will be treated equally to men in the same roles.