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Government backed initiatives to promote female participation in STEM

| December 15, 2012

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This essay aims to explore the UK based initiatives designed to promote female participation within Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematical (STEM) disciplines focusing predominately on Physics. The essay will consider the different teaching techniques and styles that have been researched and implemented in order to appeal specifically to a female audience and their relative success in terms of encouraging females to pursue both higher education in STEM based disciplines and careers.

It has been well documented that women in STEM based subjects are under-represented which has lead to an absence of females actively employed within STEM careers. Women were only 12.3 per cent of the workforce in all STEM occupations including health and skilled trades in 2008. This is, however, an increase of 2.0 percentage points since 2003 (Kirkup, et al., 2010. Women and men in science, engineering and technology: the UK statistics guide 2010. Bradford: the UKRC) showing that there has been some successful work towards encouraging females towards STEM careers. This under-representation is no more apparent than within the science discipline of Physics, which displays the persistent problem of a lack of girls continuing to study physics after the age of 16 (physics is a compulsory part of the GCSE curriculum). A substantial number of girls do well at Key Stage 4 but do not choose to study physics post-16. In 2005, only 14% of girls who were awarded an A* or A for GCSE Double Award Science or physics progressed to A level physics (Hollins et al., 2006). Whilst there has been a small year-on-year increase in the number of A level physics candidates between 2006 and 2008 (Institute of Physics, 2008), there has been little change in the proportion of girls that have taken the subject post-16. In 2008, only 22% of the entries for A-level Physics were female (Institute of Physics, 2008). These statistics can be seen clearly in the appendix where the number of female entries in 2008 actually illustrates a decrease in female uptake in comparison to 2007 of -0.3%.  In addition, recruitment to biology has remained relatively stable with more females than males being entered for A-level examinations. Chemistry entries for both male and females are relatively equal and mathematics still sees a top-heavy male count, although less dramatically than physics.

There has been an extensive amount of research into the potential reasons behind the consistently low numbers of females within Physics.  The development of institutionalised education in England was based on principles of class and gender differentiation (Purvis, 1981) and many scholars attribute existing gender culture today to their historical roots where middle-class girls were to be educated to take up roles as wives and mothers of elite men. Consequently, physics, with its high mathematical content and often abstract ideas, was a subject thought suitable only to males with girls focusing on the religious and moral aspects of science and the possibilities it provided for enhancing domestic accomplishments. Many still believe connotations of this attitude exist today and while it is important to recognise that although ‘educational policy may change, what students, their parents and their teachers have come to understand as appropriate ways for girls and boys to be, to know and to behave, will continue to reflect the historical roots of the culture’ (Murphy,P.,Whitelegg,E .,2006).  In addition, research by Alison Kelly (1987) identifies three factors that appear to account for a lack of interest by women in science, namely women see it as likely to be difficult, masculine, and impersonal. A number of modern day initiatives and specific teaching techniques have been coined to address these misconceptions and will be explored, with their relative success critiqued, in the remaining body of the essay.

Many initiatives to encourage female participation in science try to address the causes of the phenomena known in academia as the ‘leaky pipeline’. The phrase has been devised to illustrate what statistics clearly show, much like a ‘leaky pipeline’, women steadily drop out of the science educational system, which carries students from secondary school through university and on to a job in STEM. Figure 1 illustrates the risks that may be experienced by women already in the science pipeline upon commencement of a STEM based career.


An example of The Leaky Pipeline

Source: International federation of university women [image online] Available at:                                                                     <> [Accessed 16 April 2011].

Pell (1996) acknowledges that much of the selection between men and women has taken place even before academia is entered arguing that critical phases in the selection towards an academic career include early childhood, adolescence, school years and the job entry period. Pell gives development of self-esteem in early life-course, student-teacher interaction in classrooms leading to lower aspirations amongst girls, fewer female role models, and conflicts with family responsibilities, as some of the reasons for the ‘leak’ in the pipeline.    Blickenstaff. J (2005) argues alternatively that ‘no one in a position of power along the pipeline has consciously decided to filter women out of the STEM stream, but the cumulative effect of many separate but related factors results in the sex imbalance in STEM that is observed today’. Many believe the ‘leakage’ from the pipeline requires a multi-faceted solution, and time is needed to allow innovations in teaching and learning to take effect, only then will this be evident within the statistics often used to prove such initiatives have failed. It can be questioned whether the merit of such initiatives can so quickly be analysed and concluded as failures if they have not had sufficient time to evolve. For example, the increase of girls choosing to study physics may only see an increase in numbers once teaching practices, academic relevance of the syllabus and functional support networks are truly aligned together and are sustainable. This issue has been further addressed by Cronin and Roger (1999) who point out that initiatives to bring women and science together focus on one of three areas: attracting women to science, supporting women already in science, or changing science to be more inclusive of women, however, some initiatives emphasise one or two of these possibilities and ignored the other(s). A.Phipps (2008) reasons that the important initiatives designed to address the problem are under-researched allowing little opportunity for educational practitioners, activists, policy-makers and scholars to analyse and learn from the practices and policies that were developed over the past decade.

Outside of the classroom, many initiatives and organizations have been set up to encourage, support and engage women within STEM careers. One of the most prominent and long running initiatives, Women In Science and Engineering (WISE) was founded in 1984 with the aim of encouraging understanding of science among young girls and women and to promote choosing it as a career. WISE provide a range of different services and initiatives in order to achieve this aim, and engage with other organisations that provide such services. This includes resources for girls, teachers and parents. More can be found on their website <>. There is only limited work evaluating the impact of WISE policies since the organization began. Phipps (2008) suggests that although school visits by WISE did have a positive effect on girls’ opinions of science this was not translated into long term change in their career ambitions. Alternatively, WISE claim that the campaign has helped to double the percentage of female engineering graduates from 7% in 1984 to 15% today. They claim the success of the WISE programmes can only be measured using the proportions of engineering students and engineers who are female (WISE, 2010). To date, however, there has been no onward tracking of participants from the WISE outlook programme. This leads others to be more critical with Henwood (1996) claiming WISE have ‘inadvertently limited the ways in which girls and women could discuss the challenges they faced’ and with no detailed research evaluating whether various actions and policies by WISE have produced the impact, it can be hard to attribute the growth to WISE without questioning whether other factors were at play. Phipps (2008) echoes this uncertainty stating ‘it is difficult to definitely conclude that WISE policies have been the decisive or contributory factor in encouraging female participation in scientific careers’.

The UK government made a firm commitment to remedy the current situation assisting with the launch, in 2004, of the UK Resource Centre (UKRC) for Women in SET (science, engineering and technology). This organisation aims to provide practical support and help in order to encourage more women to take up a career in STEM (UKRC, 2007; Wynarczyk, 2006, 2007a). However, the activities of the UKRC are predominantly focused on the participation of women in STEM careers and its responsibility does not include education. With the greater focus on evaluative data, the UKRC holds and actively records the numbers of women with whom it has engaged in its work, and also collects statistics on the outcomes for returners in its programmes (UKRC, 2010).

Many have criticized the large number of non-governmental organisations and initiatives involved in the STEM sector stating that the process is fragmented and uncoordinated to the extent that policy and initiatives may be unable to reach their full potential. The STEM Cross-Cutting Programme also concluded that ‘at the current time there are far too many schemes, each of which has its own overheads’.(DfES, 2006a: p.3).  Despite this, the Government has substantially increased its STEM education budget and activities in an attempt to reverse the current STEM trends including cash initiatives to encourage more physics trained teachers, (Jha,A,. Guardian online 2005 ‘New incentives for maths and physics teachers’ [Available online] <>).

Within the current UK educational system, educators have been working for many years to encourage more girls to participate in school science through programs like Girls Into Science and Technology (GIST) and Computer Clubs for Girls (CC4G). The later is a not-for profit employer led organisation licensed by the government with the Department for Children Schools and Families (DCSF) currently funding it. Furthermore, the UK Government is providing support for schools to encourage more girls to study physics and to help them to become more confident and assertive in the subject. Approaches to teaching physics with an emphasis on physics as a ‘socially relevant and applied subject has led to higher attainment for both males and females’ (Murphy and Whitelegg, 2006). Previous research has also indicated that girls are motivated to study physics when they can see it as part of a ‘pathway to desirable careers’ (Murphy and Whitelegg, 2006). Successful approaches to making physics more relevant to girls included, as presented in ‘Girls into physics-Action research’:

  • Integrating physic-related careers in class (e.g. through direct references, set assignments, posters and displays in the classroom).
  • Creating opportunities in lessons for students to explore the social relevance of physics (including the roles of physicists).
  • Real life experiences with work experience and role models were also effective in ‘bringing physics to life’.


Source: Daly.A  et al 2009, Girls into physics- Action Research, Research brief. Page 2. [Available online] <<>

However, several challenges are related to these approaches. Some students, especially those of a younger age group, struggle to articulate their careers aspirations and there may also be a lack of knowledge about career options among teachers. This could add pressure onto the teacher as they feel the need to research and bring these elements into their lesson planning and schemes of work (SoW). It is already well documented about the time constraints many teachers experience with regards to sufficient planning and marking time. It could be suggested that with the low number of trained physics teachers available within the educational system at this time and their high demand (Institue of Physics, Physics and: teacher numbers, 2010), that additional content beyond that of the curriculum could put viable trainees off this career and potentially push them into other subject areas where there is less additional material to deal with. Availability of school resources could also be a problem.

The ‘Girls into physics action research’ commissioned by the Institue of physics and undertaken by Daly.A., et al (2009) aims to address five key assumptions that girls have about physics identfied in prior research by Murphy,P and Whitelegg,E (2006). This essential practice (figure 2) is deemed to support female participation within physics and it is hoped that it will be adopted as part of the classroom management.

Essential practice that supports girls participation in physics

Figure 2: Essential practice that supports girls participation in physics

Source: Daly.A.,  et al 2009, GIRLS INTO PHYSICS – ACTION RESEARCH, Figure 2, page 6.

[Available online]


The research, also carried out on behalf of the Department for Education (DfES), recommends  numerous ‘top tips’ for successful teaching and learning with these suggestions available to view in the appendix. These tips have been identified by teachers who have shown some success in enagaing female students.

Alternatively, B. Ponchaud (2008) conducted a review within schools where the female uptake of physcis was already particularly high. Ponchaud identified several top tips for teachers to use to engage female students.

1 Encourage collaboration in learning through more group discussion and activities.
2 Present the big picture whenever possible rather than just concentrating on individual ideas.
3 Give students the privacy and confidence to take risks in their thinking and responses by careful use of formative questions and the use of individual whiteboards for example.
4 Vary the grouping in class for practical and other activities to avoid some students dominating and others (often girls) becoming passive.
5 Don’t ‘talk equations’; develop ideas before using technical language and then use it in context.
6 Use a variety of illustrations based on male and female students’ interests.
7 Use a variety of analogies that help the student and accept, for discussion, any they suggest.
8 Have an explicit rationale for teaching, which includes social relevance.

Table 1: B.Ponchard’s top tips to engage female students in physics

Source: Ponchaud, B, The Girls into Physics project. School Science Review, March 2008, 89(328)

Antonia Rowlinson from St Anthony’s RC girls’ school implemented the ‘top tips’ without the need to alter the curriculum. Physics was contextualised or illustrated in the areas of interest revealed by Ponchaud’s investigation. For example, within the forces module, questions on friction were set in the context of the then current Strictly Come Dancing television programme. The follow-up survey showed that ‘whilst this new teaching technique had not substantially shifted the students’ perceptions about physics there were improvements. More girls saw physics as relevant to their career aspirations’ (Ponchaud 2008).

In conclusion, evidence clearly shows that an under-representation of females is a cause for concern. Girls perceive themselves to be less capable and less interested, than boys, in science and these attitudes can be attributed to historical views of women that are proving hard to dismiss.

Many believe that science educators have a responsibility to change those factors under their control. Over time, individual actions by teachers will help girls to break down the filter in the STEM pipeline and result in equal participation, benefiting society.  Teachers should pay attention to the way they address and present physics, watching out for language and terminology, which has a vast psychological effect for females who may suffer from stereotype threat and believe they are not capable. I have also explored the idea that girls respond to physics when it is taught in an accessible and socially relevant way but countered this with the argument of teaching time constraints and available school resources.

Work that examines the overall successful impact of initiatives and policies aimed at promoting the cause of women in science has provided a mixed verdict and can be open to critique. It seems apparent that although these initiatives specifically target the thoroughly researched reasons why females may disengage from physics and science as whole, they cannot systematically prove that the apparent incremental growth in participation figures are down to the programmes and measures they have put in place. Only recently, has initiatives such as UKRC began to collect evaluative data on the amount of women that have been effected by their work. Some texts have assumed a positive impact for various policies, citing increases in the proportions of women pursuing certain courses as evidence for different policies’ success (e.g. WISE, 2010). I have explored such critique on this view including Phipps (2008) who recognises the limited successes and impact of initiatives in general, but tempers this with statements acknowledging the wide range of challenges facing these initiatives. I believe that when more organisations begin to record and monitor engagement rates as a direct result of exposure to a particular initiative, successful programmes will become more apparent. However, I also realize that many of these organisations have limited funding and capabilities disabling them from doing this as they focus budgets on areas addressing there inherit strategy. Until this is addressed with additional funding, I fear the exact effects of many of these initiatives will never be known and it will remain a subject for academic discussion.



Blickenstaff, J C (2005). Women and science careers: leaky pipeline or gender filter? Gender and Education Vol. 17, No. 4, October 2005, pp. 369–386

Cronin, C. & Roger, A. (1999) Theorizing progress: women in science, engineering, and technology in higher education, Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 36(6), 639–661.

Computer Club for Girls. Accessed on 16/04/2011 <>

Daly.A ,Laura Grant.L2 and Karen Bultitude. K, GIRLS INTO PHYSICS – ACTION RESEARCH, Research brief. [Available online] <>

Daly.A ,Laura Grant.L2 and Karen Bultitude. K, GIRLS INTO PHYSICS – ACTION RESEARCH,[Available online]


DfES, (2006a), ‘The Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Programme Report’, HMSO, ISBN: 978-184478-827-9

Henwood, F. (1996), ‘WISE Choices? Understanding occupational decision-making in a climate of equal opportunities for women in science and technology’, Genderand Education, 8 (2), 119-214.

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Purvis, J. (1981) The double burden of class and gender in the schooling of working-class girls in nineteenth-century England 1800–1870, in: L. Barton & S. Walker (Eds) Schools, teachers and teaching (Barcombe, Falmer Press).

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Women in Science and Engineering Research Project. A publication by The Scottish Government.

Accessed on 16/04/2011 <>

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Wynarczyk, P and Hale 2009, Take up of Science and Technology Subjects in Schools and Colleges: A Synthesis Review. Commissioned by: Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), and the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF)

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