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Lack of confidence rather than ability or interest could be a key issue in discouraging girls from taking A Levels in STEM subjects, particularly physics, according to a pilot study.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies‘ pilot study for a new project investigating why girls are under-represented in maths and physics, funded by the STEM Skills Fund, surveyed just under 300 girls across 40 schools who were predicted to achieve at least grade 7 (at least grade A) in either maths, physics or combined science at GCSE.
The girls’ teachers were also surveyed. The aim was to understand what drives girls’ A level choices, including why they may or may not opt for maths or physics.
The researchers says the gender gap in maths and physics does not seem to arise because girls don’t find maths and physics interesting or because they don’t understand or value the prospects offered by a STEM career. Rather, they say, confidence seems to be a big part of the issue, particularly when it comes to physics.
Researchers Rachel Cassidy, Sarah Cattan and Claire Crawford say: “We found that, despite their high predicted grades, about half of the girls in our sample agreed or strongly agreed with the statements “I often worry that it will be difficult for me in physics classes” or “I worry I will get poor grades in physics”. The figures were about half that for maths.”
Teachers also cited a lack of confidence as the biggest factor affecting the gender gap in pursuing STEM subjects to A level: 80% agreed or strongly agreed that “these girls are just as able, but not as confident in their ability to learn STEM subjects as boys”.
They say being one of the only girls in a physics class at school or university, or a STEM job, seems to be a major factor putting off some girls.
Two thirds of the girls surveyed viewed STEM jobs as male dominated and a similar proportion of teachers agreed or strongly agreed that “these girls don’t want to/feel discouraged from pursuing STEM subjects at A level because many of their female peers do not”.
The researchers say the fact that girls attending single-sex schools are more likely to study STEM subjects than girls in mixed-sex schools supports this idea.
The researchers say: “Interventions that attempt to encourage one or two girls in a school to change their behaviour may not be enough. What may be required are interventions which send a strong signal to girls that not just they, but also a significant number of their peers, are being encouraged to pursue physics and maths.”
They admit, however, that this alone may not be enough since girls attending single sex schools are still less likely to take maths and physics than boys.