AROUND 115,000 more girls would need to study A-levels in maths or physics, or both, to reach equal numbers of male and female students studying engineering and technology degrees, according to a new report.
Analysis by charity EngineeringUK (engineeringuk.com) reveals that just 8 per cent of first-year undergraduate women who had studied maths and/or physics at A-level went on to study engineering and technology degrees, compared to 23 per cent of first-year undergraduate men.
That means around 150,000 girls would need to study A-levels in one or both subjects to reach the same number of women studying engineering and technology as men – an increase of around 115,000 girls, compared to current figures.
"The gender disparity within undergraduate degrees in engineering and technology is really concerning," says Dr Claudia Mollidor, head of research and evaluation at EngineeringUK.
"Given that A-levels in maths and physics are often a prerequisite for such degrees, we need to do more to make sure these subjects are attractive and accessible to girls at school. Particularly given we know girls perform as well as boys, or even outperform them, in these subjects."
Frankie Spencer, head of estates and facilities at Leeds Trinity University (leedstrinity.ac.uk), isn't surprised by the stats.
"It's disappointing, but not surprising," she says.
"My husband is a physics teacher, so I'm quite aware of the challenge of getting girls into STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths] education."
She believes more female role models are needed in traditionally male-dominated industries, a change that will take time.
"Construction is a brilliant example. If you walk past a building site, most of the time, you won't see any females on that building site. So, why would any young girl think, 'I could work there'? You can't be what you can't see."
In the meantime, how can parents and carers help to bridge the gender gap and encourage girls to take an interest in STEM subjects?
HAVE FUN WITH STEM
"It's all about the early years," says Spencer.
"It starts from those first toys they are bought as children, or even as babies or toddlers. It doesn't have to be all dolls – it can be dolls, plus Lego, plus construction toys."
As kids get older, you can introduce activities that teach science principles in a fun, exciting way: "My daughter, she is nine, she loves making slime. We do things like we'll get the bottle of Diet Coke and the Mentos and show explosions."
Days out to museums where kids can interact with exhibits are also a great idea, she adds: "It's fun, early exposure to science to maths."
WATCH EDUCATIONAL SHOWS
When it comes to screen time, kids can learn a lot from science and maths-focused TV shows.
"You've got things like Times Table Rockstars (ttrockstars.com), which is really good for the maths, and NumberBlocks on CBeebies is brilliant for exposing all children to maths," Spencer says.
She's also a fan of two other CBeebies shows: "Things like Maddie's Do You Know is about factories and has a female presenter, and Get Well Soon for your medical bits and bobs is a really good one – there's a female lead character."
LEAD BY EXAMPLE
At home, it's easy to inadvertently perpetuate old, inaccurate gender stereotypes through words and actions.
Spencer says: "You do hear a lot of women saying 'I'm no good at maths' or 'I was never any good at science' – you just have to be careful about that kind of terminology. Don't label yourself as a parent, and don't label your children."
Instead of defaulting to 'dad jobs' and 'mum jobs', show your kids that anyone can learn new skills and solve problems.
"If there's a problem with the plumbing in our house, my children will see me fixing the plumbing, they'll see me me doing the plastering, so they won't have any real preconceptions about who does what in our house," Spencer says.
"I try to set examples at home where, OK, if you don't know how to fit a shelf, learn on YouTube yourself and be the person who fits the shelf."
When it comes to studying STEM topics at school, encourage girls to involve themselves fully in group projects and science experiments, instead of taking a back seat.
"Don't be the note taker," is Spencer's advice for girls in high school.
"You are not there as the PA, you are part of the discussions, part of the group and part of the contribution."
That way, young women can challenge the outdated notion that STEM topics are more suited to boys, and may be more likely to choose them for GCSE or a later stage: "By the time you come to make those decisions, there's less of that stigma, or you will have the confidence for that stigma not to bother you."