STEAM: Don’t ‘fancy’ science? I’m afraid you couldn’t be any more wrong

Students rubbish claim by country's 'strictest head'

Monday, 4th July — By Anna Lamche

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Katherine Birbalsingh giving evidence to a parliamentary committee

A PARLIAMENTARY committee is investigating why there is a decline in female students taking maths and physics after GCSE.

But the message this week was clear that it isn’t because girls don’t like tough numbers.

A recent session of the Science and Technology Committee saw the government’s social mobility adviser Katherine Birbalsingh – labelled the country’s strictest headteacher for a TV documentary – tell MPs that “physics isn’t something girls tend to fancy” and that “there’s a lot of hard maths in there that I think they would rather not do.”

More recently, Cambridge physicist Professor Dame Athene Donald told the committee: “If you are black or if you are a woman, you don’t see yourself fitting in.”

We spoke to two female STEM students at different stages in their education to give their thoughts on what the committee has been told.

Cheyanne Kusi, 16, an A-level physics student at City and Islington College, said she thought “there is a lack of diversity in many fields and in physics especially”, adding: “I imagine girls are put off the subject because they mostly see white middle-class men as the figureheads of the subject.

“If you only see people like them doing the subject and not people that look like you, you’re probably less likely to want to do it,” she said.
For Ms Kusi, female role models are vital to “change the perception of physics.”

She said: “We need to be spreading awareness of more female scientists, because at the moment the only one I can think of is Marie Curie.”

She added having good female physics teachers has been a “big inspiration” for her.

Cheyanne Kusi [City and Islington]

For Ms Kusi, taking physics is a way to keep her career options open.

“It can go down so many different avenues from nuclear energy and engineering to architecture and rocket science,” she said. “It really opens up doors, rather than closing them.”

Meanwhile, Bede Tyler, 22, is a fourth year medical student at UCL, based in Belsize Park. Ms Tyler, who studied maths and further maths at A-Level, described Ms Birbalsingh’s comments as “ridiculous”.

Bede Tyler

Ms Tyler said she loved “hard maths” from a young age.

“I loved maths. I think it’s problem-solving,” she said. “You have something that looks really complicated, but if you have learned it and you know the approach and the structure – how to tackle it – it’s really satisfying.”

Ms Tyler said in her maths classes, girls were in the minority.

“There was always a much bigger majority of boys. But 90 per cent of my maths teachers were male – thinking back I had three female maths teachers in my life, and maybe that has an influence.”

Ms Tyler said a lack of female role models and stereotypes surrounding subjects such as engineering – “seen as a very masculine job” – also discourage girls from picking STEM subjects.

“If you look back, all the big scientists you hear about are men,” she said.

She added there was a lack of understanding about the careers available to science students.

“I never once considered jobs I could do as someone who liked science and maths – I never thought I could design an app or go and work for NASA,” she said.

As a medical student, the gender balance has evened out, Ms Tyler said, but she hoped to see better representation of women in the sciences over the coming years.

“If you enjoy the subject, just do it,” she said. “Don’t be put off by other people in your classes, your teachers or anything else.”

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