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Here come the girls: science and the stereotype

Here come the girls: science and the stereotype

Kate Quillin is a 15-year-old student from Watford in Hertfordshire. She is currently in Year 10 at Watford Grammar School for Girls, and is studying for 12 GCSEs. She completed a Bronze CREST Award a couple of years ago, and is now finalising her Silver Award by using her research from her Bronze Award. She says that she is yet to decide on a career path, but that science is a definite possibility.

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Kate QuillinSomewhere in the hundreds of fascinating stands at the Big Bang Fair 2012, my friend and I were presenting our Bronze CREST Award project – ‘Does hairspray weaken human hair?’ Over the three days, there were hundreds and hundreds of parents, teachers, children and science enthusiasts that passed our stand – probably because of its proximity to the café, but I like to think that some were genuinely interested.

We were thrilled that lots of people visited us asking questions, and we were surprised by the ones that came up, for example: ‘Is the weakness permanent?’ (It isn’t – but that’s another story.)

But there was one visitor whose comments in particular stuck in my mind. We were discussing the rest of the projects there, and he said that it was really nice to see more and more girls in science - particularly engineering and technology. 

This got me thinking. Where are all the women in science?

The problem

Sure, there have been women in the past who we can thank for scientific discovery: Marie Curie (who discovered polonium and was the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize) and Rosalind Franklin (the unsung hero who helped to discover the double helix) are just a couple. And everyone knows that historically, it was much harder for women to get into science.

But today, despite everything else that has been done to close the gender gaps, there are definitely fewer women in science than there are men. Although there are just as many girls doing science at GCSE as boys, the further in education you go, the fewer women you seem to find.

For example, in two schools – one the girls’ school I attend and the other being the parallel boy’s school – there was a massive difference in who chose to study science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM subjects) at A2 last year. Scientists at the boys’ school made up 57% of the total. But at the girls’, only 37% of A’ levels taken were STEM subjects.

(For the record, the girls did better.)

The girls do better – so where are they?

Marie Curie in 1903So why, then, is there such a massive difference in girls and boys choosing STEM subjects? Girls obviously don’t find them any harder – in fact, national statistics show that girls consistently outperform boys in exams.

The answer may simply be those stereotypes of female scientists – which seem to take the form of either frumpy nerds with glasses or Bond girls shaking their hair out of their eyes, having just neutralised a deadly reaction – take your pick. Girls are often influenced by the media, which sometimes gives subtle hints that science is uncool and geeky – which, of course, it is not.

Girls also seemed to be lured away from ‘boyish’ things from a very young age – if you have a baby boy and a baby girl, who is more likely to be given the doll and who the toy car? (I’ll let you make up your mind on that one.)

My experience

I’m interested in a wide range of subjects at school - but doing an Award has really broadened my interest in science. It gave me a chance to challenge myself and then showcase my work to thousands of members of the public who attended the Big Bang Fair. Now I am a member of the CREST Youth Panel and it is so rewarding – you get a chance to meet other young people like you with something to say about science. (For what it’s worth, eight in ten current Youth Panel members are girls.)

Science is one of the most interesting fields the world has to offer.  Where else are you going to watch things go bang, see how the world works, and shape the future?

I’m choosing my A’ levels next year. It’s an important decision – and perhaps what would encourage girls like me to choose science are some more positive female role models – to inspire and motivate us.

And then we really can say ‘here come the girls!’

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