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Women in science, engineering and technology: the UK experience
Switching girls on to SET

According to Marie-Nolle Barton, manager of the WISE campaign (see below), the reasons why women and girls do not opt for SET are complex. Lack of role models, public opinions about gender and SET and some employers' negative attitudes all contribute.

Breaking the mould

In 1997, GASAT (Gender and Science and Technology), an international network of researchers, published Breaking the Mould. This paper reviews and analyses women into SET interventions developed over the past 15 years. It also shows that the problem knows no borders; it is not restricted to the UK or even Europe. Drawing on experiences from around the world, the report confirms the value of sharing findings to identify and overcome the barriers. The report covers initiatives in six main areas of concern:

  • pre-school and out of school experiences
  • role models
  • single-sex environments
  • teaching practices and classroom interactions
  • nature and image of science and technology
  • information technology.

Science for all: from five to sixteen

From birth, parents often unconsciously treat young girls and boys differently. Boys are encouraged to play with cars and building blocks while girls are given dolls and activities related to the home. As a result, many girls' are less confident about using technology later in life.

If science teaching is poor or limited at primary school, gender stereotypes are easily reinforced and girls will not pursue SET later in life. Due to the introduction of a compulsory National Curriculum in 1988, all students in the UK follow a broad and balanced science curriculum between the ages of five and sixteen.

Work with differences, not against them school policies for equal opportunities

The Association of Science Education is working to change attitudes in schools. Its policy statement on Gender and Science Education acknowledges that girls and boys respond differently to the content and style of science education. The statement recommends good practices to avoid gender stereotyping in teaching, learning and assessment, choice of resources, careers guidance and staff appointments and professional development. It also states: 'All groups, institutions and organisations concerned with science education should have explicit, written equal opportunities policies and use them effectively to guide, monitor and evaluate their practice.'

Training teachers

Most primary school teachers are female and often enter the profession with little scientific training. If men are more enthusiastic and confident than women teaching science at this level, children may develop the misconception that women cannot succeed in science. They may also think 'biology is for girls' and 'physical sciences are for boys'. To promote fair and inclusive education across the entire curriculum, teacher training courses in the UK now also include equal opportunities policy courses.

'Hands on' in-service training has become more widely available to empower primary teachers in all areas of science. The Science Museum in London and Techniquest, Cardiff's science centre, run popular courses, for example.

The internet increasingly provides teachers with lesson ideas and materials. The SETNET web site, a 'one-stop shop' for science, engineering, technology and mathematics resources, makes it easier for teachers to find what they need.

Putting SET in a positive light

Modern life relies on science, engineering and technology. But in the UK, SET has a serious image problem. In the eyes of many, science is for the 'boffins' wielding bubbling test tubes, writing complicated equations and lacking in social skills. And in a recent survey which asked the public to name the country's most popular and well-known engineer, a garage mechanic from a TV soap opera was identified. It's no wonder that girls aren't keen to follow SET beyond school. Views of Engineering as a Career, a study conducted by MORI/EMTA, showed that more females than males see engineering as difficult, dirty, poorly paid and mainly for men. Half the girls surveyed agreed with the statement 'engineering is boring' compared to only 31 per cent of boys. Similarly, 27 per cent of boys said that they were likely to consider a career in engineering, compared to only 5 per cent of girls.

Many initiatives help both primary and secondary teachers show students that science is interesting, rewarding and accessible to both sexes.

Not all scientists wear white coats

The Promoting Women in SET Unit offers a wide range of materials. For example, 'X2 the mystery of the vanishing girls', a very accessible, magazine style booklet which challenges 13-14 year-old girls' views of science. It describes young women working in SET in sectors not always associated with science such as the media.

Leed's Animation, a women's collective making socially aware animated films, recently produced a thought-provoking video showing science in daily life. 'Did I say Hairdressing? I meant Astrophysics' is set in the Technology Jungle and features characters like Zod, the great man of science. The cartoon stimulates discussion about gender typecasting in SET in an entertaining way. This video, along with one for science teachers, called Getting Girls into SET, is available through the Promoting Women in SET Unit.

Promoting SET for Women a focal point

The Government's White Paper on SET, Realising Our Potential (1993), stresses the importance of maximising the talents of scientists, engineers and technologists, regardless of gender. Shortly after the strategy was released, a Working Group, chaired by Dr Nancy Lane, came together to suggest how women's skills and expertise could be harnessed to strengthen the science base for national advantage. The Group's report, The Rising Tide, recommended the creation of a Central Government Unit to coordinate actions for women in SET. The Rising Tide is a key document for women in SET issues in the UK and it suggested many of the initiatives described in this briefing sheet.

Established in 1994, the Promoting SET for Women Unit (formerly called the Development Unit for Women in SET) is part of the Office of Science and Technology in the UK Government's Department for Trade and Industry. As a catalyst, this unit has sparked off many projects and initiatives as well as co-ordinating actions developed in both public and private sector organisations.

Promoting SET for Women focuses on four key areas: schools, higher education, industry and those returning after a career break. It has a well-organised web site at www.set4women.gov.uk providing targeted information on the initiatives it funds and co-ordinates. Publications, role model posters, videos, a catalogue of databases on organisations holding data on women in SET and other materials are available from the web site and from the helpline ((0)20 7233 0743).

Further materials are available through WISE. The 'Flying High' poster set and teachers notes, aimed at primary schools, illustrate that women can succeed in SET. Another video, Wise Up!, shows teenage girls the excitement of engineering through interviews with women scientists and engineers working and studying in Wales.

Women Into Science and Engineering making a difference

Women Into Science and Engineering (WISE) is a well-established and evolving campaign to encourage more girls and women to consider careers in SET. Launched in 1984 by the Engineering Council and the Equal Opportunities Commission, WISE targets six key groups: women and girls, parents, teachers, lecturers and careers advisers, employers, politicians and the media. WISE committees have also been established in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland to cater for the specific needs of women in these countries.

Since WISE started its campaign, much has changed: by 1989 all university engineering courses had female students. The number of women studying engineering at degree level has risen from 7 per cent in 1984 to 14 per cent in 1997. Today, more than 14 per cent of engineering undergraduates are females who go on to pursue jobs in the field of engineering.

Building confidence

Persuading girls that they can achieve in science often goes against what they hear at home and in the media. Practical activities where girls can explore SET in a safe environment builds up their confidence.

Hands on!

BAYS science clubs, organised by the British Association for the Advancement of Science ( BAAS), give both boys and girls under the age of 13 an opportunity to investigate science in an informal setting. The activity packs developed are specially designed for teachers without specialist scientific knowledge. Through the CREST awards scheme, older pupils work towards awards through task oriented projects.

Don't miss the bus

School trips can be expensive and difficult to organise around busy school timetables. The WISE bus scheme brings a mobile technology classroom to the school instead. In the bus, girls have a chance to experiment with mechanisms, micro-electronics, pneumatics, microprocessors for control and computer-aided design and communication at their own pace without the boys.

Back to the Introduction, or Forward to 'Staying power - SET beyond sixteen'

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