When this story circulated at The Female Lead, we were appalled. ‘Dreadful’, ‘shocking and ‘ridiculous’ were just some of the words used by our team members.
Katharine Birbalsingh’s comments that fewer girls chose physics because “physics isn’t something that girls tend to fancy”, are futile and nonproductive to say the least.
Every day we work incredibly hard to speed up the progress of social equality for girls in education and women at work. It is old-fashioned, stereotypical comments such as these that hinder this process.
While it is true that there are not enough girls taking up STEM subjects at school, this has absolutely nothing to do with a lack of interest or ability. Birbalsingh’s opinion that she doesn’t think “there’s anything external” that’s to blame is perhaps the most mind boggling remark she makes.
Our desires and goals are shaped by society’s expectations of us, and when people in power negatively reinforce certain ideas to young people, instead of providing positive encouragement, this has easily avoidable detrimental effects.
It is not what was said that is so shocking - we have become so used to backwards comments from trolls online that we can often laugh at the sheer nonsense of them. It is who made the comments that left us so dismayed. Katharine Birbalsingh is not only the headteacher of a school, but remarkably the government’s social mobility commissioner.
The government’s website states that “the Social Mobility Commission exists to create a United Kingdom where the circumstances of birth do not determine outcomes in life” - a slight paradox to the comments made by Birbalsingh. No matter the sex or gender of a child, equal opportunity in STEM subjects should be given to every pupil at school.
It’s worth noting that opportunity is not just limited to the subjects that are on offer at GCSE and A-Level - it extends to affirmation from teachers and parents that any student can excel in any STEM field they choose, if they work hard enough. What is unhelpful, is the suggestion that “There’s a lot of hard maths in there that I think [girls] would rather not do.”
We need to work hard to ensure that each generation produces more and more women in STEM until we are close to balance.
Katherine has since issued a response to the backlash she received from her comments, and we were a little relieved to read that she said: “We’ve worked hard at my school to eradicate the social factors that might have restricted underprivileged students, including girls, from reaching their best potential.”
However, we believe Katherine is still overlooking the huge problems in our society by saying: “some of our girls have made the decision not to specialise in a particular subject and have done so with a clear mind, with external factors controlled.”
This suggests that girls today could be uninfluenced and unaffected by society’s expectation of them, because these expectations - or ‘external factors’ - have been controlled (at least within this particular school).
On the contrary, we believe there’s a long way to go to bridge the gender gap. We know that a lack of representation in STEM is a huge reason why girls are less likely to choose STEM subjects, and it’s not possible to shield them from this inequality.
In Katherine’s article she states that “girls are more inclined to be empathetic while boys are more systematic, as a large quantity of evidence suggests.” However, we believe this is learned behaviour that restricts both girls and boys from reaching their full potential in certain areas.
We need to change attitudes towards gender from an early age to help discourage prejudice later on in the working life.
We need to work hard to ensure that each generation produces more and more women in STEM until we are close to balance, and this means overlooking traditional ideas that girls are just less interested in these subjects, instead of choosing to accept this as something which cannot be changed.
Furthermore, schools are rewarded for producing high achieving students with Grades A and A*. This means schools might be tempted to advise pupils to take the ‘easier’ and potentially lower cost subjects to increase their average grade score. We know that STEM subjects like physics are particularly difficult and more expensive to teach, which is why industry leaders want better rewards for schools who deliver A-Level STEM subjects to more pupils.
Even the young women who have overcome barriers in education and made it into a career in STEM face discrimination. According to Pew Research Centre, half of the women in STEM jobs say they have been discriminated against at work, compared with 19% of men. We need to change attitudes towards gender from an early age to help discourage prejudice later on in the working life.
At The Female Lead, we showcase the stories of positive female role models, so that young people can grow up feeling empowered and believing that any career is attainable. People working in education can learn from some of the female leads who feature in our book, all of whom are experts in their field.
Dr Shini Somara, Mechanical Engineer and Media Broadcaster, told us: “I think the reason why I’m so passionate about helping women is because a lot of what held me back was feeling like I didn’t fit in. I really wanted to turn my attention to supporting women through that self doubt, because we are so capable. We are smart, and a lot of the stereotypes of male-dominated career choices are just unnecessary. They’re just wrong. Whatever you’re passionate about, you can do it.”
Hannah Fry, Mathematician, Author, Lecturer and Media Broadcaster, said in her interview with The Female Lead: “I have this theory that people’s opinion about maths is an unstable equilibrium, by which I mean all it takes is a tiny kick into one direction, and we end up spiralling off. For me that was a positive kick - my mum was focused on education, and I had a really good teacher who encouraged me. And so I started to think that maths was alright. The more I liked it, the more I practised, and the better I became at it.”
“But it can so easily happen in the other direction too, and I think that happens so much, especially with women. What that means is when you inevitably get to a point where maths starts to become hard - because it does, it’s not an easy subject - you can’t help but think that you’re the one that’s the problem, and the reason it’s difficult is because you’re the one that doesn’t belong.”
“I just think about all of the women who felt like they couldn’t exist in that space because they had negative experiences, and who gave up on something that could have been so wonderful for them, just because of the way the world thinks it’s okay to speak to women.”
“It’s a whole society thing. It has nothing to do with the ability of people. You should see how good some of my female students are… they blow everyone out of the water - they’re incredible.”
Anne-Marie Imafidon, Computing and Mathematics child prodigy, and CEO of Stemettes, told The Female Lead about her company: “Stemettes is a social enterprise that I run. We aim to show that girls do STEM – STEM is for all, and that there’s a lot of opportunity and fulfilment in this. And there are a lot of reasons why this is definitely something you can do, despite what the world might be telling you.”
“Stemettes started in 2013 because I noticed that the lack of women in technical fields was a serious problem. Technology is so deep-rooted - it’s part of everything we do: the way we communicate, the way we transact, the way we understand things. Not having women there means that you’re rebuilding a second-class citizen based on gender, and that’s not good enough.”
Jess Wade, a physicist who studies new materials at Imperial College London, spends her evenings researching and writing the Wikipedia biographies of scientists and engineers from historically marginalised groups, and has written one every single day since the beginning of 2018. She said: “We have a huge cultural challenge to keep fantastic women working in science. We want women to make science a career where they feel as valued as their male counterparts, because otherwise science is massively missing out.”
These are just four incredible women breaking the barriers put in place by society, who have proved that women should be equal stakeholders in the STEM world. They all had to fight against unhelpful stereotypes to get to where they are now. And they are all on a mission to show the next generation of women that STEM is for everyone.
Perhaps it is because at The Female Lead we surround ourselves with such positive, forward thinking role models that we are so frustrated when we hear views which slow down development in feminism. Debate and discussion is a healthy way to make progress in society while ensuring everybody has their voice heard, so we recognise the importance of conversations like this.
We believe that we rise by lifting others, and hope that over time we will see a more progressive society that views boys and girls, or men and women, as true equals in every field of work.
Written by Holly Droy