A shortage of women working in sciences and technology could be fuelled by gender discrimination taking place early on in life, new research suggests, as thousands of schoolgirls are thought to be dropping subjects due to gender stereotyping by parents and teachers.
In a survey of more than 8,600 young people and adults, more some 57 per cent of teachers admitted to having made subconscious stereotypes about girls and boys in relation to sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects.
More than half of parents admitted to the same subconscious stereotyping and a further 54 per cent of teachers claimed they had seen girls dropping the subjects at school due to pressure from parents.
The figures, published by Accenture, come as a number of events take place across the country this month to promote and encourage girls to get into much-needed STEM-based careers, such science teachers and IT specialists.
Women are persistently under-represented across all fields of science, making up just 14 per cent of the STEM workforce in the UK.
The problem is mirrored in the US, where female employees account for less than a quarter of STEM workers – despite making up almost half the overall workforce.
Almost a third of young people responding to the survey said they thought more boys chose STEM subjects than girls because they matched “male” careers or jobs.
And a further 36 per cent said they were put off studying STEM subjects because they felt unclear about what careers they would support.
The survey reveals a disparity between girls’ and boys’ perceptions of STEM subjects, with girls more likely to view them as “academic” and “boring”.
The findings also point to a significant dip in girls’ enjoyment of traditional STEM subjects such as mathematics and computer science as they enter secondary school – among the 7-11 age group, 50 per cent of girls describe these subjects as fun and enjoyable, but this drops to less than a third in the 11-14 age group.
“Girls’ engagement with STEM is clearly waning as they reach the age when they begin to consider their subject choices and future careers,” said Emma McGuigan, senior managing director for Accenture Technology in the UK and Ireland.
“We have to address this by doing more to spark and retain girls’ interest in STEM at an early age, while expanding perceptions and demonstrating what a career or a person who works in STEM looks like beyond the traditional stereotypes.
“Inspiring more girls to pursue STEM subjects and careers will not only help us to address the skills gap in science and technology, it will also help us to create a more diverse workforce that truly represents the world we live in.”
Last month it was revealed that girls as young as six believe exceptional talent to be a strictly male trait.
They also shun activities and games for the “really, really smart” from the same age, believing their male counterparts are more likely to exhibit “brilliance”, scientists publishing work in the journal Science said.
Responding to previous concerns over the quality of STEM teaching in schools, the Government has pledged to do more to encourage young people to study the subjects and embark upon STEM careers.
Programmes such as the Stimulating Physics Network and the Further Maths Support Programme aim to help schools to improve progression to these subjects at A-level, with a particular focus on improving the engagement of girls.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We want to raise standards of achievement and participation in STEM subjects to ensure our future workforce has the skills to drive the future productivity and economy of this country.
“Getting more girls into STEM subjects can play a part in this, and we are taking steps to make this happen.
“We already have a number of programmes to help improve progression to STEM subjects at A-level, with a particular focus on improving the engagement of girls, and have invested £12.1m over the next three years to improve science teaching.”
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