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23 Feb 2018

Alex Hems: Head's Blog Feb 23, 2018

A2.SMY AlexHems096 Crop 250wCan you name a female scientist? 

This was the question that Mr Ashmore, Head of Sciences, put to the Upper School in Assembly on Monday morning. Sunday 11th February was the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. We are proud that at St George’s a third of our leavers go on to study STEM subjects at university (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). Science Club and Young Engineers are amongst our most popular clubs. This term, in recognition of expanding opportunities in new industries we have created a new faculty, of Art and the Creative Technologies, to combine two areas of strength for the school in a way which we hope will generate innovative curriculum development and allow our students to see and make the most of the potential synergies between the two creative strands.  Our Primary 6 girls enjoy a double period a week of specialist science teaching, and next session we will start teaching the separate sciences in Lower 4 (S1) rather than Upper 4.  A group of our students returned on Sunday from a trip to the Johnson Space Center in Texas, where they had spent a week on a STEM Sisters project at NASA, working with scientists across an array of disciplines. Their eyes have been opened to the career opportunities that exist for research in areas they had never previously considered, and we look forward to hearing more about their experiences in due course.  Initiatives like this, and many others that the school takes part in, are designed to attract girls and young women into careers in the STEM areas. Women are still under-represented at the highest level in science and technology. Traditional gender stereotyping about what is perceived to be a ‘girls’ subject’ or a ‘boys’ subject’ will not have helped, and clearly this is where girls’ schools can play such an important part in breaking down misconceptions and giving girls the freedom to follow their intellectual interests, wherever they lead them. 

Over the years there has been fierce academic debate about the idea of the gendered brain, with studies apparently suggesting that male brains are moulded in the uterus by the hormones around them to become more systemising and focused on objects, whereas the female brain is naturally more focused on empathy and social skills.  Some of these studies have been discredited, however, and there is growing evidence to suggest that the way in which we live our lives, our experiences and our environment do shape our brains. Research carried out at UCL suggests that the process that London taxi drivers go through, of memorising the layout of 25,000 streets and landmarks in order to qualify as cabbies may actually change the size of the part of their brain known as the hippocampus. The plasticity of the brain, its ability to adapt to its environment is well known. If a child is given lots of 3D toys like construction sets and models to build, or plays lots of certain kinds of video games, they develop particular spatial skills. Does society therefore contribute to shaping our brains and through convention and practice actually bring about a biological change?  One of our own alumnae, Professor Cordelia Fine has made this her area of study, and the idea is explored in her most recent book, Testosterone Rex: Unmaking the Myths of our Gendered Minds.  We are also increasingly aware of different, non-binary or more fluid gender identification which reminds us of how unstable and misleading any stereotypes might be. 

I am sure that the controversy will rage on. Girls’ schools like St George’s will continue to enable girls to flourish in an environment where they can be themselves, surrounded by strong female role models and enjoying abundant opportunities to take on new challenges, free of conventional gender-related thinking. The message of the impact that intellectual habits can have on brain development, reminding us that we have the opportunity to shape and influence our own potential on a daily basis is a powerful one for us all and I hope that in the next few years, the excellent initiatives to promote careers in STEM for women will bear fruit, which will put an end to misconceptions about gender and intellect for ever.

Mrs Alex Hems MA Oxon
Head, St George's School for Girls, Edinburgh

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