By Orna Herr, Communications Officer (Education) for the British Science Association

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Picture a classroom full of students studying GCSE French. Or Higher Spanish, or any other foreign language commonly taught in UK schools. Now picture the same classroom, only this time it is full of students studying A-level engineering. How would you describe the students for each lesson? You might have imagined a language class mostly populated by female students, and male students making up the majority of the engineering class. 

In 2017-2018, around 50% of all girls studied for a GCSE in a foreign language, compared to around 38% of boys. While maths and science are compulsory subjects at GCSE, when we look at what students go on to study at A-level we see a significant gender gap. Of the students who intended to study engineering, 87% were male, and 78% of those who intended to study physics were also male. These disparities continue through to undergraduate level, where, in the 2019 academic year, 71% of language students were female while 80% of engineering and technology students were male. 

Of course this data, which examines gender splits in certain subjects, does not take into account non-binary students, who identify beyond the male-female binary. While the above statistics demonstrate an underrepresentation of women on engineering and technology courses, they do not reflect the nuances of gender identification within a group of people assigned as either male or female at birth, which is a limitation in its own right.  

Statistics aside, you may be wondering this: 'Why is the study of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) is being compared with that of foreign languages?' The underrepresentation of women in STEM, beginning in school classrooms and continuing into the workforce, is a disheartening but well-established fact. Female overrepresentation in the study of foreign languages, meanwhile, may be less familiar and seemingly has little connection to the need to redress the gender balance in STEM.

But, think again – high uptake of the study of foreign languages from GCSE level may just be a secret weapon women and girls can use to carve out more space in the STEM workforce of the future.

As the world becomes increasingly interconnected through the internet (59.5% of the world’s population is now online), the ability to communicate in more than one language is more important to employers now than ever before, particularly in STEM industries.

Scientific advancements are an international affair. As explained by Dr Bill Rivers, Executive Director for the Joint National Committee for Languages, “Multilingual communication is intrinsic to today’s scientific collaboration and progress, which means the language industry is fundamental to furthering every aspect of STEM professions and business.”

The authors of an academic study on foreign languages and STEM agreed with Dr Rivers. They said: “To be updated with scientific-technical advances, any researcher or professional needs to know other languages.”

That’s pretty conclusive! And the increased ability to communicate and collaborate with international scientists isn’t where the benefits ends when it comes to STEM. Studies show that multi-linguists have better concentration and problem solving skills and are more able to multi-task – qualities that any good scientist needs.

Helping school students to understand that speaking a foreign language is highly prized in a competitive, globalised STEM workforce might mean that the language classroom, as well as the lab, is the place to nurture the scientists of the future.