more women than men are now studying STEM

For the first time ever, the number of women taking science A-Levels outnumbered men this year. In the past, it has been widely reported that men have dominated the STEM field (science, technology, engineering and maths) while more women chose to pursue the arts and humanities. 

Data Science Campus reported that in 2018, that there was a massive drop in girls who decided to continue studying STEM subjects at A-Level – 35% of girls compared to 80% of boys. However, new statistics show that 1,930 more core STEM A-levels have been awarded to girls in 2019 than in 2018, while the number awarded to boys has dropped by a similar amount (1,792). 

Helen Wollaston, Chief Executive of WISE, the campaign for gender balance in science, technology, engineering and maths, explains the “results are a fantastic testament to all of the work which has been done over the last few years to encourage more girls to study core STEM subjects. These results should encourage girls, their families and teachers because they show girls are interested in science and they are good at it.”

However, despite these improvements, scientists still warn that several subjects, including maths and computing, remain heavily populated by males.

Why has there always been such disparity? 

One of the leading theories as to why stereotypes of what ‘boys and girls subjects’ exist is that gender gaps are socially constructed. Luigi Guiso and his colleagues assessed gender differences in maths performance in different countries and found that in countries with greater gender equality, ie how much they treated women as equal to men, such as Norway and Sweden, the gender gap disappeared. Whereas in countries such as Turkey, where there is greater gender inequality, on average men outperformed women. 

It’s also been suggested that men are just biologically better at spatial tasks than women; however, meta-analyses consistently show that men and women are much more similar than they are different on a range of skills.

What these results suggest is that one’s mathematical ability is based on social reinforcement as well as individual capability. In order to bridge the gap between genders, we need to eliminate the limitations we put on each other to scrap this socially ingrained inferiority/superiority complex.

What does this mean for the arts?

Whilst the UK is seeing improved numbers in their skills shortage, there is now a growing concern that the arts and humanities are being abandoned in favour of STEM subjects.

The British Academy reports that entries for A-Levels in English subjects declined by 13% in 2019 compared with 2018 in England – in line with an overall fall of 30% since the recent peak of entries in 2015.

While he appreciates that as we move further into the 21st century it is essential that more students are skilled in STEM subjects, Professor Sir David Cannadine, President of the British Academy, insists that “developments such as automated technologies, health discoveries and other inventions cannot be looked at through the scientific lens alone – they need the input of those who have studied ethics, human behaviour, culture, the law and more.”

What do I, an English student, think?

I’m so thrilled that more women are pursuing STEM subjects. It’s about time. There’s definitely a stigma around these subjects that characterises them as more male-orientated. Think about it – how many female scientists can you name off the top of your head compared to male? 

However, equally, I see a double standard for men choosing the arts or humanities. Many guys often decide not to choose these subjects because of peer influence; they would rather choose Maths because that’s what the rest of their friends have chosen instead of a subject like History, something they might find more enjoyable.

While I completely understand why the government are encouraging more people to choose STEM subjects, I don’t regret choosing my English degree. The disciplines I’ve learned from the subject, combined with the skills gained in implementing my degree in work experience and internship roles, makes me feel equipped for life after university (well, say with naïve optimism). 

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