Science and stereotypes: Give girls the confidence to match boys


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Research by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development suggests that gender stereotypes remain well-defined when it comes to teenagers’ views about their most likely career path.

At the age of 15, boys across OECD countries are four times as interested as girls in pursuing careers in fields including computing and engineering. In higher education and beyond, girls are far more likely to opt out of maths and science-related subjects.

In tests carried out in 2012 as part of the OECD’s triennial Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), females were found to fall behind their male peers in the ability to think like scientists. When asked to explain phenomena scientifically, the gap between boys and girls was particularly acute in the United Kingdom – 21 points, against an average of 15 points across all the countries surveyed.

And yet as the Pisa results show, the differences are not the result of innate, intellectual variances in the male and female brain: if they were, the outcome of tests would be broadly the same for all countries, which they manifestly were not. Instead, girls lag behind for cultural reasons. Indeed, in this country, girls are shown to be much more likely than boys to think they are not good at mathematics and science: their lack of confidence can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It is important not to feel too gloomy. In last summer’s GCSE results for science subjects, girls achieved more A* to C grades than boys. Ultimately, though, it is self-confidence in a subject as much as academic attainment which encourages individuals to study at a higher level or to follow a related career path.

Given this country’s skills shortages in areas such as engineering, computer science and manufacturing, there is an obvious imperative to address the feelings of doubt which lead many girls to give up on maths and science at the earliest possible opportunity.