An interview with Mark Ashmore, Head of Science at St George's, on how independent schools are helping to bridge the gender gap in STEM subjects
(This article was commissioned by SCIS for their website)
According to CBI statistics, 66% of businesses are concerned about the lack of suitably skilled workers to fill high-skill job roles in the future. Additionally, The Royal Society of Edinburgh have gone on record stating that “more needs to be done” to improve gender equality. Their research has revealed the shocking statistic that less than a third of STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) university graduates are women.
Despite the best efforts of the teachers committed to bridging the gender gap, we have yet to see the number of women studying STEM subjects reach equality to their male counterparts,
As Head of Faculty of Science at St George’s School for Girls in Edinburgh, Mark Ashmore witnesses first-hand the challenges and opportunities facing girls in the STEM sector today. We spoke to Mark about encouraging more girls to study STEM subjects and understand more about what St George’s is doing to promote the value of STEM within their classrooms.
Tell us a little bit about your position within the school and what’s involved in your role?
“In my role as Head of Faculty of Science I am responsible for science education and engagement across the school. I mentor the students of medicine, veterinary medicine and dentistry, and promote STEM subjects and careers. If we can engage girls at a young age, then they will continue that interest right through the school.”
Do you believe there is enough awareness about STEM careers within schools?
“Whilst STEM subjects are promoted well in schools, I think that the breadth of careers available in STEM is often underestimated. We celebrated STEM careers for women as part of St George’s 130th Anniversary celebrations, introducing girls across the school from P5 to S6, to the wide array of careers open to them in STEM. What we wanted them to understand is that even if their first degree may not be in a STEM subject, there are plenty of opportunities to work in the STEM sector for example. every pharmaceutical company will need lawyers and medical research technicians.
“There is certainly a drive to engage more girls in STEM, and we are fortunate at St George’s – an all girls’ school - that we can avoid stereotypes, allowing girls to choose subjects that interest them and that they are good at. There are many opportunities to receive funding for women in STEM, at all levels of education.”
What do you think are the biggest misconceptions young girls have about careers in STEM?
“Ask a student to draw a picture of ‘a scientist’, and the majority will draw a male in a lab coat, with mad hair. Traditionally, many STEM careers have been male dominated, but we are seeing an increasing number of women leading the way in STEM research and development. This can only be beneficial to the industry, and it provides young women with positive role models and a new social norm of women at the top of STEM. The girls coming through St George’s studying STEM do not see barriers, only opportunities.”
As an all-girls school, what is your school doing to help encourage more interest in STEM subjects?
“We have a range of academic enrichment programmes available which range from science clubs in the primary years, through to a Medical Society in S6. We encourage girls to participate in STEM competitions, and have been successful in design and electronics competitions, as well as having UK winners in Mathematics, Neuroscience, Biology and Chemistry competitions. Recent visits from Medical Research Scotland and the prominent research physicist Dr Helen Czerski have proven extremely successful in engaging more girls in STEM subjects.”
Have you seen any increase in recent years of girls showing more interest in taking STEM subjects at school?
“Over the last eight years, numbers have continued to grow. We are very fortunate here at St George’s that science has the highest uptake of any of the option subjects. We buck the national trends; 25% of our girls take all three sciences at GCSE in S4, STEM subjects are the largest proportion of students in S5 and S6, and well over one third of all our university entrants go on to study STEM based courses.”
What advice would you give to pupils and parents to encourage an interest in STEM outside of school?
“STEM is in everything we encounter in everyday life. Our phones, transport, health system and banking all rely on STEM careers. Avoiding gender stereotypes is key and encouraging any interest in STEM can be very positive. Getting hands on with any STEM subject is invaluable.”
Is there anything else schools can be doing to help bridge the gender gap in STEM?
“As teachers, we have an important role to play in changing perceptions of STEM. There are still stories of schools advising girls that they should not study STEM subjects. We have a very firm belief at St George’s that girls can follow whatever career path they want.
“Engagement is the key to achievement, and the more opportunities girls have to engage with STEM subjects in and out of school, then the more of them will go on to achieve great things in their STEM careers.”
This article was commissioned by the Scottish Council of Independent Schools. If you are interested in reading more articles about independent education in Scotland, head over to the SCIS website.