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The gender gap just doesn’t add up

Comment by students at King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds ANL-151025-114649001
Comment by students at King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds ANL-151025-114649001

As the professor waved vaguely towards a collection of symbols on the board, the students seemed to flop under stifling heat. They had to be there. It was multivariable calculus in a 9am lecture.

Aside from the fact that most people were half-asleep, I noticed a theme in the room.

For a hall containing more than 200 students, I was one of only seven female students there.

It’s true that as a woman studying a STEM subject (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), finding a student of the same gender in your class is often a shock. I’ve noticed this phenomenon during an assortment of university open days, residential visits, and even classes in school.

One event I attended was held over the summer at Cambridge University, aimed to encourage girls completing A-levels in science to apply for similar degrees. Cambridge has the greatest gender gap for maths in the country. The statistics show that in an average year, a male applicant has a 1-in-5 chance of gaining a place on the course, whereas a female applicant has only a 1-in-10 chance.

So is it that woman are just wired up differently, or haven’t we the capacity to understand STEM subjects in the way men do?

If anything, the evidence points to the contrary.

In 2014, female students had a greater percentage of A*-C grade GCSEs in every STEM subject than male students, yet at A-level under 30% of those studying further mathematics and physics are female. For computer scientists and engineering students, this drops to under 10%.

Despite female students continuing to have, on average, better grades than male students in STEM subjects at A-level, the percentage pursuing these and achieving places at degree level appears to fall.

Whilst I don’t feel like I’ve been pushed away from STEM subjects through my life, the compliment of being told I’m good at maths is often dampened by the phrase ‘for a girl’.

There has undoubtedly been a lot of effort put into encouraging women to pursue sciences in recent years, and to some extent this appears to have helped.

The work of ‘WISE’ (Woman In Science and Engineering) gives opportunities to woman looking to study and build a career around STEM subjects, with the aim of leading more than a million woman into working in such careers in the UK. In the past year, the number of female students going into higher education to study these subjects has increased by 7.2%.

Despite the ambitions of organisations like this, some attempts of equality have been more detrimental than productive. The appearance of ‘girls only’ maths and science competitions simply highlights the gender divide when it comes to STEM subjects.

Although society finds my choice of degree - to quote a male STEM applicant I met during my university interviews - “a little bit weird”, I look forward to immersing myself in my mathematics degree this September. I’m planning to continue disregarding the stereotypes associated with my subject and dismantling such preconceptions as I head through life.

Dana Penistone is a student at King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds


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