How can we reduce the gender imbalance within STEM?

Lara Jayne Cooper.

Any female physics student will tell you that there are more males than females in Physics. A-Level classrooms and lecture theatres across the country have an overwhelming imbalance of male and female participants. Why? How do we change this? Or perhaps, do we need to change it?

It is proven that females are just as, if not more capable in this area than their male counterparts, with females outperforming males in STEM subjects at GCSE, A-Level, and degree level.[1] A report by the Institute of Physics (IoP) showed that between the graduating years of 2005 – 2010 18.6% of males achieved a first class bachelor’s degree, 26% achieved an upper second[2]. Compare this to 23.9%, and 35.3% respectively of women and it is clear that they outperform yet again[2]. So why is it that in 2010, of the universities studied, 1100 males completed bachelor degrees, compared with only 325 females, only just over a quarter. [2] The numbers are imbalanced at A-Level too, for more than 20 years only around 20% of A-Level Physics students have been girls[3]. Shockingly the IoP found that in 2011 46% of secondary schools had no girls taking physics A-Level. In fact, the only level at which the genders are roughly equal is at GCSE, where science is compulsory.

Society stereotypes have a large part to play in this issue. When you think of an aircraft engineer, a male in dirty overalls comes to mind. When you think of a research scientist, a male in a lab coat pops into your head. It is often the case that it is perceived that science and maths are ‘boy’ subjects and the more creative humanities are for girls. I myself was once asked if I was lost whilst waiting for a lecture in the Physics building at university simply because, in the words of my questioner, “you’re a girl, and you’re blonde”. This is the way that society has engineered our thinking, and perhaps why many young girls think a STEM pathway is not for them. The IoP’s report ‘It’s different for girls’ supported the notion that young girls are heavily influenced by gender stereotypes and found that girls that attend single sex secondary schools are twice as likely to take physics than those in co-ed schools[3].

In 2015, Twitter, and the media, blew up over comments made my Sir Tim Hunt, a Nobel Prize winning Professor at UCL. In a speech he gave at a conference in South Korea Sir Tim suggested that women in labs fall in love with their male colleagues and cry when they are criticised[4]. He suggested that having women in the lab took the focus away from the science because ‘it’s terribly important that in a lab people are on the same playing field’[4].  The comments caused outrage among women, and men, across the globe with some level of bemusement and shock that such attitudes still exist. But exist they do, and if highly educated, high profile individuals are sharing these opinions on a global scale, what hope is there for women to become equal in science? Tim Hunt apologised that his comments had caused offence, but not for their content, and subsequently resigned from his position, an action that UCL praised. In a statement issued they said that his decision was ‘compatible with our commitment to gender equality’[4]. Maybe there is some hope after all.

You may wonder why it even matters. Why does it matter that only 8% of qualified engineers in the UK are women[5], if we employ the best people for the job then what does their gender matter? The point is we have already proved that women are just as successful, if not more so than males and therefore it is not through lack of capability that they are not filling roles in STEM related careers. Therefore, steps must be taken to combat this reality and show young women that STEM is for them, and they are just as good as the boys.

Enforcing quotas has been one response to the issue but there has been discussion as to whether this is the right response or not. Quotas are essentially targets that schools, universities, research labs, companies must reach in terms of the number of women that they accept to study/employ. On the one hand quotas achieve exactly what they set out to do, they do get more women involved in STEM.  However, there are several arguments to say quotas are the easy way out, and slightly miss the point. Quotas force institutions and companies into giving women places and jobs because they are women, when the real objective is to get more women to want to be there in the first place.

A number of organisations, including Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) and the IoP, are targeting this issue in a different way. By creating a campaign targeting the first step of gender separation, the number of girls taking A-Levels, the IoP hopes that more girls will choose to follow this pathway. Action plans for teachers and parents to follow, aimed at encouraging young girls to pursue this pathway and combat the stereotypes have been created to engage more girls from a young age. Letting girls know early in their secondary school careers about STEM careers and the path to access them is crucial.

The WISE campaign was set up specifically to combat the gender gap in STEM and is currently running initiatives such as ‘create your future’ workshops for girls, parents, employers and teachers, as well as free training for women engineers about how to inspire other young women to follow in their footsteps. They have key links to multinational corporations including Jaguar Land Rover to offer scholarships to sponsor women through engineering degrees, a summer internship, as well as a mentor to help them through their studies. These resources are invaluable and offer fantastic opportunities and incentives to young women with a passion for STEM.

So I praise the actions of the likes of the Institute of Physics and WISE, and I hope it works. I hope that at some point in the not very distant future that the gender gap is reduced. I hope no more girls are asked if they are lost, and that more girls are choosing to pursue physics and other STEM subjects, not to fulfil quotas, not because anyone told them too, but because they WANT to.

[1] -WISE (2016) WISE has analysed the gender balance and trends at every stage of the STEM classroom to boardroom pipeline. Available at: (Accessed: 19 November 2016).

[2] – Physics Students in UK Higher Education Institutions (2012) Available at: (Accessed: 19 November 2016). [3] – It’s different for girls (2012) Available at: (Accessed: 19 November 2016).

[4] – BBC (2015) Sir Tim Hunt resigns from university role over girls comment. Available at: (Accessed: 19 November 2016).

[5] – WISE (2016b) Ingenious women: Communicating a passion for engineering. Available at: (Accessed: 19 November 2016).


How can we reduce the gender imbalance within STEM?

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