As a secondary school science teacher, I was very excited to attend the Royal Society’s Annual Diversity Conference on the 16th November in London.
The focus of the conference was exploring ways to remove barriers to participation in STEM education. It is great to hear that the Society believes that it has a particular responsibility to ensure that diversity and inclusion are embedded across all of its activities and as part of the culture of the organisation. Their aim is to develop a world in which science is open to all.
First, the keynote address was from Professor Sarah-Jane Leslie, discussing cultures of genius and academic gender gaps. The address began with the question, why are there so few women in science? As a teacher of fifteen years I have seen, in most schools I have taught at, a gender imbalance develop between GCSE and A level in STEM subjects. Biology A level traditionally skews towards more female, Chemistry a more even mix; Physics and Mathematics have a far great male to female ratio.
Professor Leslie’s research into the use of language with children, the perception of their mathematical ability, how early these ideas about ability become fixed, was fascinating but not surprising. Ever since I have been a teacher we have been working to build girls confidence in mathematics and mathematical dependent subjects. It is great that I now have some data to share as evidence with my team. We have also known for a long time that girls do not lack competence in mathematics, just that they do not believe they are good at it and so do not enjoy it.
Since being back at school, I have asked my female students what they think of this. They all agreed with the point and said it was because they often internalise their disappointment with getting mathematical questions incorrect and see it as their fault. A fixed idea about ability develops and girls begin to believe that they are not good at maths and never will be. The fact that this attitude develops at the age of six is a great concern. We must adequately fund and support nurseries and primary schools to ensure that girls do not develop such a mind-set. Clearly, they cannot do this on their own and it is all our responsibility if we want to develop a world in which studying and working in science is open to all.
One thing that struck me, and surprised the female students I spoke to, was Professor Leslie’s claim that parents often do not see their daughters as future scientists and are less likely to question (in their google searches) if their daughter is a genius compared with their sons. Clearly, pre-school and outside of school, work needs to be done to help girls develop confidence in STEM and see themselves, and be seen by others, as future mathematicians and scientists.
There may be difficult questions to face as we work towards the goal of a fully diverse scientific community, we may need to hold a mirror up to ourselves and be prepared to challenge our unconscious bias, but it is comforting to know that the present and future can be changed by the work we as teachers do. We will all benefit immeasurable from improving diversity in STEM.
The next question is: What are you going to do about it?