Closing the gender gap could take 258 years for physics and 60 years for mathematics

2 mins read

In the 'Year of Engineering', engineering skills are taking centre stage and the Skills Commission inquiry, which is co-chaired by Lucy Allan MP, Preet Gill MP and Professor Sandra McNally, is taking evidence as to why women are so badly under-represented within engineering courses, and whether upcoming skills system reforms will encourage more women to go into the profession.

Last month, the Provost of NMiTE, the new engineering university being created in Hereford, gave evidence to the commission and, according to Professor Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, the imbalance between the number of male and female engineers is due to a misconception among teenagers as to what constitutes a professional engineer. As a result, many were rejecting engineering as a career.

She dismissed what she called the dogmatic insistence in the UK that, “all engineers must have A-Level Physics and Maths.”

While professional and competent engineers need to know when to use maths and what maths to use, she wondered whether A Levels were the only way of ensuring this.

“Too few female teenagers are inspired to take Maths and Physics A-Level, partly because they don’t see it leading to the sorts of careers they want,” according to the Professor.

A new report, from the Institute of Physics (IoP) Why Not Physics? - A Snapshot of Girls' Uptake at A-level, has found that only 1.9% of girls chose A-level Physics in 2016, compared with 6.5% of boys.

Even more shocking was that 44% of schools in England send no girls at all to study the subject.

So how do we close the gender gap when Britain has an estimated shortfall of 40,000 engineering graduates?

Without a serious and sustained intervention, the gender gap is likely to persist for generations. A lack of visibility also preserves the myth that Physics is “not a subject for girls.”

NMiTE plans a radical approach based on the success of the Olin engineering college in America, which consistently achieves a balanced intake of male and female students.

NMiTE’s is looking to attract a much broader intake of people, rather than only drawing from the limited pool of sixth-formers doing A-Level Maths in what is a very specialised syllabus.

Its approach can be summed up as “100% learning by doing: no lectures, no set textbooks, and no exams,” and creating a syllabus based on the real world needs of industry.

Olin has been cited as a role model, and while it is a relatively new college, it’s around 20 years old it has a growing reputation for engineering and the admission process is very competitive. In fact, a report from MIT said that Olin College was now among the leading institutions for teaching of engineering in the US.

Radical change is needed because the lack of girls studying Physics to a higher level will have real consequences for the UK economy, but not only that, the consequences of girls' choices at school mean that many are missing out on a rewarding and fulfilling career.