Every panel that I have spoken on about improving representation of girls’ in STEM subjects always pauses around the fifth question to ask, “but what about the boys?”.
Usually this goes on to be followed up by statistics on fewer boys in co-educational environments taking up English Literature, going on to be nurses or something similar.
At the Global Education and Skills Forum in March, I finally felt frustrated enough to give an honest answer. In short, in this arena, the boys are fine, now let’s move on.
If you ask anyone that I interact with on a regular basis they will tell you that I am a passionate advocate for gender parity, and I truly believe that this involves looking at issues that men face as well as women. I am hugely concerned by the mental health crisis facing young men, with the biggest killer of men under the age of 45 being suicide, and think that discussion around mental health should be present in every school. I am desperately keen that men be given parental leave and rights that are equal to women, and allow men to spend time with their children without being financially penalised. And yes, there is evidence to show that in co-educational environments boys are less likely to study English or Psychology A-Level than in a single sex environment.
But should these be at the centre of a conversation around girls’ involvement in STEM subjects? No! Science and technology industries are woefully underrepresented by women, despite girls’ high achievements academically in their teenage years, and there isn’t that same issue with a lack of men having their novels published or gaining their psychology doctorate, for example.
Our developing world will be poorer without the minds of young women to contribute to the design and implementation of new technology, and we owe it to our young women to equip them for these challenging and often high paying careers.
Wider changes towards gender equality will make a difference in removing barriers to young women that prevent them from exploring these areas, however when discussing practical strategies for supporting girls now with their passions in STEM fields I will no longer have the conversation hijacked by a focus on men and boys. This should not become the dominant area of discussion, as so often becomes the case.
Let’s engage in discussion and debate, learning from incredible teachers and inspiring role models who are putting their focus on and efforts into girls and the amazing things that they can do.