By Professor Dame Athene Donald

On 18 May I had my first opportunity to present evidence to a Parliamentary Select Committee: the Commons Science and Technology Select Committee were taking evidence in their enquiry into Diversity and Inclusion in STEM. As readers may have seen, a few weeks back the Social Mobility Commissioner, Katherine Birbalsingh, stated at this committee that girls were put off Physics A-Level because ‘they don’t like hard maths’. Churchill College has many present and past examples of women to prove her wrong, although she’s right that statistically far fewer girls take Physics A-Level than boys. I wrote about how inaccurate the view was that girls simply ‘don’t like Physics’ a decade ago in the Guardian, following the publication of some striking evidence in a report from the Institute of Physics (IOP) about the much higher percentage of girls progressing to A-Level in single sex schools, compared with coeducational ones. Those arguments still hold. I think it is important to stress that children receive messages from our society about what is ‘right’ and where they might ‘fit in’ at an incredibly early age. All kinds of stereotypes are out there of what a scientist looks like and all too often those will be of men. It is important to be aware of the importance of the years well before when formal decisions are made about subject choices.

Following Birbalsingh’s remarks, which have had a lot of public pushback, it would seem that the Committee decided to explore the matter further and devoted a whole morning to exploring these and related issues in a formal session this week. I was delighted to be asked to attend as a witness during this session, along with seven other educators and academics. The whole session can be viewed online, or a transcript read, if you want to follow this in more detail, and I will just highlight some context and evidence here, much of which I also covered in my initial written submission (although that additionally considered many of the issues for women as they progress through academia).

In the survey Draw a Scientist, young children may well draw a woman, but as they get older increasingly only men are represented, as pupils imbibe the stereotypes they see and hear about. The work done by the Institute of Physics over many years, including the report I allude to above, has highlighted how the whole school ethos – and not just the quality of teaching – impacts on decisions children make as they come to make subject choices at secondary school. In England, children have to make these critical decisions at an age where they are significantly impacted by what they believe others will think of them. If boys tell the girls that Physics is not for them, it clearly has a negative effect unless it is countered by messaging elsewhere in the school. It does not help that not a single female scientist is named in the National Curriculum (for England), and textbooks typically will not even contain more than a handful of references to them, although Marie Curie does appear more often than other women.

What can be done? Introducing a greater diversity of images and role models is obviously an easy way to start. Some schools take great pride in bringing in people from many different spheres to talk to pupils about their jobs and career paths, but these need to be diverse too and not just reinforcing stereotypes. The Speakers for Schools initiative is a wonderful opportunity for many people to get involved in talking directly about careers, at a time when careers advice in schools is often lacking or at least inadequate due to resourcing issues. Nevertheless, I worry that in socially deprived areas schools may be less likely to be able to access such speakers. I’m pleased that the last couple of talks I’ve given under this scheme have both been out in the Fens, away from the quite well-resourced schools of Cambridge.

But, crucially, I believe it is important for head teachers such as Birbalsingh to think hard about what subliminal messages everyone in their school receives; there are many equivalent stereotypes that limit boys’ choices in just as damaging a way (again, highlighted in an IOP report). One of the places that policy-makers can make a difference is in asking OFSTED to factor in what steps towards diversity and inclusion each school is taking during their inspections. This should be done for both primary and secondary schools. Do, for instance, they ensure that both boys and girls get offered the full range of choices when it comes to work experience or careers’ advice? What sort of stories do primary school children get to hear about science and scientists?

Although I focus on girls here, and in the evidence I gave, there are many other sections of society that do not see Physics as ‘for them’. Children from many ethnic minorities likewise never see people like them in books or in the media and may not feel they would fit in. Socio-economic disadvantage is another and important contra-indication. Other witnesses in my own session and in the earlier ones, have spoken to these matters, pointing out not least how many children aren’t presented with information on what a wonderful training Physics can offer for a wide range of career paths, well beyond being ‘a physicist’. At this point I’d like to highlight the wonderful work Churchill Fellow Dr Lisa Jardine Wright is doing in this space, leading the STEM SMART pilot for widening participation directed at Years 12 and 13, launched last year to help bridge attainment gaps, mitigate COVID-19 disruption, and strengthen university applications.

There are many factors which feed into decisions children make, of course going far beyond the school environment, but schools – unlike what turns up in soaps on TV, or in the media, social or otherwise – are closer to Parliamentarians’ jurisdiction. I look forward to seeing the final report that the Select Committee produces covering these important issues.