"Not for people like me?"


I’ve been reading a great report from WISE about girls and STEM, and culling it for ideas. It really is an excellent report, and is chock full of evidence and references to go through.

It is highly recommended reading. However, there are a couple of places where it contradicts itself.

1. Does discussing the lack of women in STEM help or hinder?

On page 20 it says (their bold):

Research for the WISE Campaign by Oglivy Change, September 2014 (unpublished) reiterates that girls at decision making age, the age when they are trying to work out what it is to be female, seek to conform to the norm and therefore seek to self-identify as ‘belonging’.

The message that few women work in science, technology or engineering makes girls think that as ‘normal women’ they are less likely to be happy in a STEM career.

While parents are a significant influence, girls are aware of a wider societal discourse about the ‘appropriate’ roles for men and women, so that what they are being told about the opportunities to study STEM and take up careers in engineering does not sufficiently challenge their real-world experiences.

“Going in the Right Direction? Careers guidance in schools from September 2012”, Ofsted 2012.

But then, on page 21 it says (my bold):

One US study sought to address the issues and put five of the most prevalent theories of what most increases female interest in physics:

• Discussing the under-representation of women in physics.
• Having a girls-only physics class.
• Having a female physics teacher.
• Having female scientist guest speakers in physics class
(role models).
• Discussing the work of female scientists in physics class.

The study concluded that the only intervention to have a significant positive effect was discussing the under- representation of women in physics with these girls. Interestingly, girls-only physics classes were not effective unless accompanied by other modifications (which likely also explains why all girls-schools do so much better in physics).

Hazari, Z. et al. “Factors that affect the physical science career interest of female students: Testing five common hypotheses”. Physical Review Special Topics , Physics Education Research, 9, 020115, October 2013.

These seem to be somewhat at odds with each other.

2. Does careers advice help or have no effect?

Repeatedly, the report says or implies that a big part of the problem with girls going into STEM is that they don’t have enough access to careers information. There are mentions on P12, then on page 14 it says (my bold):

Surveys conducted by the National Audit Office with 1,274 children and young people suggest that the following are critical success factors in improving take-up and achievement STEM subjects:

Careers information and guidance.
• Quality and quantity of science teachers.
• Quality and quantity of school science facilities.
• Image and interest.
• Availability of separate GCSE sciences (‘triple science’).

“Educating the next generation of scientists”, Department for Education & National Audit Office, November 2010.


On P15 it says that a Girlguiding report says that one reason girls veer away from engineering is that they “don’t know enough about it”. On P15, an Ofsted report says"

Girls in Key Stage 3 said they were not sufficiently informed to make the choices their desired career paths required. They lacked information about starting salary, promotion prospects and earning potential. Furthermore, teaching about career breaks, the impact of raising a family and how careers develop through promotion was rare in all of the schools.

Lack of information is mentioned again on P19.

But on P16, an Ofsted report found:

• The influence of school, or of explicit careers education was found to be relatively small in girls’ careers aspirations.

That also seems to contradict the rest of the information.

So, how do I reconcile these contradictions? Or do I just ignore them? The second discrepancy I feel quite happy to ignore as the importance of careers information is mentioned more often than this one mention that it’s ineffective. But the question of whether or not discussing the lack of women in STEM has a positive or negative impact is a bit more important to resolve.

Anyone want to have a look around at the literature?