Women in STEM: A British perspective

Florence Jones.

In 2015 just 14% 1 of STEM employees in the UK were female. While this figure on its own is shocking, it looks even worse when compared to other advanced countries such as the United States at 26%2 and Australia at 28%3. Within Europe the UK has one of the worst rates of female participation across all STEM occupations, and has the lowest percentage of female engineers in the continent according to Engineering UK4. Their figures show only 9% of UK engineers are female compared, for example, to 26% in Sweden. The under-representation of women in STEM in the UK is a concern for more reasons than simple equality. Science and technology play an increasingly important role in the economy of the country. As the then Business Secretary Vince Cable said in 2012 when talking about the shortage of women in STEM careers, “There’s no way we can generate the number of scientists and engineers the economy requires without addressing the situation.”5

So, why does the UK lag behind so much of the developed world with regard to gender equality in STEM, and what can be done to address this imbalance?

Perhaps the obvious place to start is with education and see how young women fair with STEM subjects. The traditional British education system forces students to decide at the age of 16 which three or four subjects they want to study for ‘A’ Level. By extension these decisions constrain both, what the students may later study in Higher Education, and their future career options. The figures for ‘A’ Level entrants in 20166 show that Biology is the only STEM subject with more female students (61%) than male. Chemistry has a 50-50 split while the others have varying degrees of male dominance, with Maths having 32% female entrants and Physics only having 22%. These figures have shown little variation over the last three years. The reasons for the general unpopularity of STEM subjects at ‘A’ Level with young women is not altogether clear. However, as discussed later, there is a general perception in society that women are not good at science, and it seems likely that receiving this subliminal message throughout their childhood will have a negative effect on participation. At the age of 16 most teenagers are quite immature to be make such life-defining decisions, and may not have found a true academic passion. In these circumstances they are more likely to choose subjects they have been told their gender are traditionally good at. The variation in participation across different STEM subjects is interesting. Biology is often perceived as the lighter science that girls can study alongside non-science subjects. It is thought many girls opt to study Chemistry as it is a must-do ‘A’ level to get into medical school, and young females now comprise over half of trainee doctors. Physics remains as the subject that really is seen to be “for boys”.

The type of school attended also has an impact on the number of female students taking STEM subjects, most noticeably in Maths and Physics. Female students attending an all-girls schools are more likely to study these subjects at ‘A’ Level, as are students at private schools. A report by the Institute of Physics in 20127 showed that girls in single-sex state schools were two and a half times more likely to take Physics ‘A’ Level than those in a mixed-sex state school. Further to this, a female student attending a single-sex independent school was four times more likely to take Physics ‘A’ level than if she attended a mixed-sex state school. There are many theories on why this is the case. It is thought that in a single sex-school girls feel more confident with STEM subjects and are therefore more likely to study them at ‘A’ level. Perhaps the girls thrive as the gender stereotypes that boys naturally excel at science do not affect them as much. In a mixed-sex school girls studying STEM subjects are nearly always in male dominated classes. To be in a classroom where there are very few other young girls is an intimidating and unappealing learning environment for many.

Forcing students to choose only three or four subjects to study beyond the age of 16 cannot help the number of females opting for STEM subjects. When faced with such a choice it is not surprising that many young females decide to stick with what are seen as the more traditionally female, humanities subjects. Perhaps if more schools exchanged standard ‘A’ levels for qualifications that offer a broader range of subjects, such as the International Baccalaureate (IB), there would be an increase in the number of girls who continue to study STEM subjects beyond the age of 16.

In the United States the education system is a lot less restrictive than the British system. Students study many subjects until they end their high school education. Even when starting university, they are still able to study a wide variety of courses across a range of subjects. Although this system forces students to study subjects they may not enjoy for many years longer than in the UK, it also allows more time for students to develop their interests and to mature before making a decision that will affect their future career paths. It is possible that this extended decision period is one of the contributing factors as to why the United States has a considerably higher percentage of women in STEM careers than the UK.

Although the choice of ‘A’ Level subjects is critical in keeping young females involved in STEM the problem does not end there. The number of females involved in STEM continues to fall through undergraduate and postgraduate education and throughout subsequent careers. This phenomenon is known as the ‘leaky pipeline’8 and is an issue that both Government and other bodies continue to struggle with.

Beyond the education system there are a number of cultural influences that mitigate against female engagement with STEM careers. Gender stereotypes are almost as engrained into growing up in the UK as learning to read and write. From a young age children are presented with many gender stereotypes. Many of these can be seen as pretty harmless, such as baby girls wearing pink and baby boys wearing blue. However other stereotypes could be affecting young women’s’ choice of degrees and ultimately the careers they feel comfortable pursuing. Children’s books often use male figures to represent careers such as scientists, engineers and builders. This gender stereotyping can influence the mind set of children as they grow and become young adults. Girls are often pointed towards subjects deemed more creative and are not encouraged to pursue subjects considered manly such as Maths or Physics. Despite there being a conscious effort by many to fight these stereotypes, it is still common in today’s society for people to express shock when discovering a woman is pursuing a degree in a STEM subject or working in a STEM occupation. In the UK the media often overshadow a woman’s achievements by commenting on their appearance, and women in STEM are often portrayed as un-female and unattractive. These negative comments help make STEM an unappealing career option to many women.

Despite the progress in gender equality in the UK in the last 100 years, sexism in the workplace is still a daily issue for many women. During a speech in 2015 at a conference in South Korea, Tim Hunt, a Nobel laureate, and at the time an honorary professor at University College London (UCL), said “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … Three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.”5 These comments provide an example of the sexist attitudes women in STEM careers are battling against. Clearly not all male researchers share Tim Hunt’s views, but it would naïve to think that he is the only highly regarded scientist that views females in the lab as a distraction. A quick Google search will serve-up numerous articles from women across the globe discussing the sexist attitudes they are victim to at work. While such attitudes are not restricted to STEM jobs, the male-dominated STEM workforce likely makes the situation worse than in most other careers, and does not help to make a career in STEM attractive to women.

There has also been much discussion about the unconscious bias women experience when applying for jobs. A 20129 study demonstrated that science faculties at research universities would assume applicants with male names to be more competent, hireable and deserving of a higher salary than those with female names that had otherwise identical CVs. A survey conducted by the L’Oréal foundation10 found that 64% of British people believed that women did not have the correct skill-set to acquire a high ranking position within the scientific industry. This means that not only are women in STEM fighting against prejudice from their co-workers they are also fighting it from the general public.

There is a distinct shortage of women in high ranking and high-profile roles in science. The L’Oréal Foundation study11 reports that across the European Union women hold only 11% of the highest academic positions in scientific fields, and further notes that only 3% of scientific Nobel Prize winners have been women. Most UK citizens would struggle to name a single current female scientist, yet many could readily name Brian Cox or Stephen Hawking when asked for a male equivalent. This lack of female role models surely has a negative impact on young women’s keenness to take up a career in STEM.

The global picture for women in STEM can seem disheartening however some countries demonstrate a much brighter picture. In Latin America an impressive 45% of scientific researchers are female12. In Brazil the development of longer paid maternity leave and the regular media appearances of high level female researchers are considered to have been vital in achieving this high level of female participation.13

In the UK there are numerous organisations focused on tackling the problems discussed and trying to improve female participation in STEM. Women in Science and Engineering (WISE), are one of the biggest and most active organisations. They promote STEM to women by advising organisations on how to provide the best working environment for women to thrive in. The campaign provides a platform for organisations to advertise STEM jobs, and for young girls to read case studies on female role models. GeekGirls is another organisation that aims to support and promote women in STEM. It aims to provide a platform for women to support, encourage and inspire each other. Sciencegrrl is an organisation celebrating women in science, their slogan ‘because science is for everyone’ demonstrates their key message of sharing their love of science to the next generation both male and female.

Governments around the world have been trying various initiatives to tackle the problem over recent years. Since his inauguration as president in 2009 Barack Obama and his administration have committed to increasing the participation of women in STEM. In 2009 the percentage of women in STEM roles was 24%, by 2011 this rose to 26% and has continued to rise. Across the United States organisations such as NASA and the Girl Scouts are working together to inspire girls to pursue careers in STEM. The campaign also recognises the need to provide better female role models in STEM as they can help encourage women’s involvement. President Obama has looked to provide more female role models by appointing female STEM workers to several high profile Government positions, such as Sally Jewel, a qualified engineer, as the Secretary of Interior.14

In Australia the Government has also committed to improving the number of females in STEM careers. Key areas that needed improvement were identified and organisations such as Professional Australia committed to finding solutions. Further research was also conducted into the impact that gender stereotyping has on young people deciding to choose STEM subjects. Lack of proper support from both teachers and parents is shown to have an effect on the lack of girls choosing to study science subjects in their last year of schooling. However, the research also demonstrates that the current generation is not following this trend so perhaps in years to come there will be a generation of STEM workers with a gender spilt a lot closer to 50-50.3

While it is very easy to look at the UK statistics for women in STEM and be dismayed, it is important to note there are some signs of encouragement. The number of women in STEM has been rising in recent years due to the actions and encouragement of organisations such as WISE. However, it is important that focus on the issue is maintained as there is still much to do if the UK is to make full use of the talents of the female population in the increasingly important STEM workforce.



1 https://www.wisecampaign.org.uk/resources/2016/02/higher-education-statistics-2015 Date Accessed: January 2017

2 http://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/acs-24.pdf Date Accessed: January 2017

3 http://www.professionalsaustralia.org.au/professional-women/wp-content/uploads/sites/48/2014/03/WOMEN_IN_STEM_v2.pdf Date Accessed: January 2017

4 http://www.engineeringuk.com/View/?con_id=145 Date Accessed: January 2017

5 https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2015/jun/13/how-well-are-women-represented-in-uk-science Date Accessed: January 2017

6 https://www.wisecampaign.org.uk/resources/2016/08/stem-2016-a-level-results Date Accessed: January 2017

7 https://www.iop.org/education/teacher/support/girls_physics/file_58196.pdf Date Accessed: 2017

8 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationopinion/10637941/The-leaky-pipeline-of-women-in-science.html Date Accessed: January 2017

9 C.A.Moss-Racusin et al, ‘Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students’, 2012, PNAS, Retrieved from: http://www.pnas.org/content/109/41/16474.full.pdf


11 http://www.changethenumbers.science Date Accessed: January 2017

12 http://uis.unesco.org/sites/default/files/documents/fs34-women-in-science-2015-en.pdf Date Accessed: January 2017

13 https://www.theguardian.com/guardian-professional/2015/jun/24/why-women-in-stem-may-be-better-off-working-in-india-and-latin-america Date Accessed: January 2017

14 https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/microsites/ostp/stem_factsheet_2013_07232013.pdf Date Accessed: January 2017


Women in STEM: A British perspective

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