How employers can attract girls into science education

In September last year, Opportunity 2000 together with Aim High (a Business in the Community campaign to raise educational standards through education/industry links), brought together a group of employers and educationalists to examine how more girls can be persuaded to take up science, engineering and technology careers. Among the 150 delegates there was general agreement that the business case for attracting young women into non-traditional careers is strong.

Two key objectives arose from the day’s discussions. Firstly, stereotypes about what girls and boys can do, need to be challenged in schools – particularly primary schools – and employers, teachers and parents have a role to play in this. Secondly, the image of engineering and science careers, which is still rooted in the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century, has to be rectified and improved. But how can these objectives be achieved?

Building closer partnerships between schools and business was identifed as the main way forward. Employers need a clearer understanding of how the education system has changed in recent years (by becoming school governors, for example,) and schools need a better appreciation of the skills required by industry: at this conference numeracy, literacy, IT experience, interpersonal skills, teamworking, project management, problem solving and financial control were the major competences identified. Both parties need to understand where their aims and objectives conflict – employers and schools often hold different views about how much work schools should do, for example, to develop tomorrow’s workforce. Schools and business could work together to:

Develop the curriculum

There are many ways in which employers and schools can work in partnership to develop the quality of science and careers education in the curriculum. Giving talks to school, hosting workplace visits, donating materials and surplus equipment, developing curriculum materials and helping with project work are all valuable activities. Here are a few examples of what some employers have done:
British Airways recently devised a programme in which it designed curriculum materials with local teachers on the key business themes of People at Work, Customer Service and Planning Journeys.
The University of Sunderland, has introduced a “GNVQ curriculum enhancement scheme” which is providing tuition for GNVQ science students in university laboratories one day a week over the two year course. The aim is to equip GNVQ students with the academic base and confidence to progress to higher education in science while keeping up enthusiasm for SET subjects. Because of the broader base of the course content, it is thought that GNVQ may prove a more successful route for getting girls into higher science education in future than traditional A’levels. Of the 14 students on Sunderland’s programme planning to enter higher education, six are girls.
Northampton engineering firm, Express Lifts, sends engineering apprentices into a local primary school to work with teachers on science-based projects. (This year the task is to build an iron man). Apart from improving the quality of science education, the companys says the experience provides useful training and development for apprentices who are responsible, for example, for securing raw materials within the firm, explaining engineering concepts and generally managing the video porno project.
Car manufacturer, Toyota, has invested £1.2 million in science education in the UK by setting up a fund to finance science and technology projects in primary and secondary schools. Grants of between £500 and £1500 are typically used to buy specialist scientific equipment. Each project features a teacher placement with a local business.

Mentor girls and provide more role models

Mentors, which are variously described as advisers, friends and counsellors, are thought to be a useful way of attracting more girls into SET careers as well as involving women already working in non-traditional areas in role-modelling. The Tower Hamlets Education Business Partnership runs a mentoring programme involving 110 mentors who are generally employees with large City organisations which aims to make students more aware of the range of career possibilities that now exist in the world of work. Mentors can provide inspiration for young adults as well as practical help on, say, how to prepare a c.v. or how to identify and assess an individual’s range of skills. And they do not have to be employees. Recently graduated women science students and women medical students can also help pupils of all ages in schools. In addition employers such as BP and the University of Sunderland are developing their links with schools by running student tutoring schemes. Under these schemes, undergraduates are sponsored to work in nursery, primary as well as secondary schools to help out, for example, on science projects. These projects help raise the level of science education in school and, where they involve female undergraduates, provide role models for girls of all ages. (See Chartwell Land case study).

Develop teachers science and careers knowledge

Employers can play a major role in helping teachers get a better understanding of the world of science, engineering and techology. Teacher placements, which may involve workshadowing senior women managers, are one way forward. For these to be successful though, there must be careful planning and objective-setting. (See the BT case study.)

Raise the priority given to career education

Employers and educationalists generally recognise that careers education (developing the individual’s knowledge and understanding of skills and self) and careers guidance (helping individuals apply their knowledge and skills to make the right career and subject choices) can have a significant influence on students’ career decisions. Employers can help improve the quality of careers education and guidance by holding industry days and career events, providing work simulation opportunities and helping with interview and c.v. preparation. (See the British Gas, Adwest, Insight and Ford case studies.)
Improve the quality of work experience

Although there are concerns that given current pressures on organisations to reduce staffing levels, opportunities for work experience are declining, work experience is recognised by employers as a good opportunity to raise their profile with potential employees and change girls’ attitudes to SET careers. (See Sainsbury’s case study.)

Other observations

Apart from working in closer partnership with schools, the conference also felt that employers could explore a number of other avenues in a bid to attract more women into SET careers. In one organisation, creative thinking in the recruitment department has resulted in languages graduates being recruited into IT positions where they are enjoying considerable success. Indeed some employers thought re-labelling, say, information technology and calling it communications technology might help pupils, parents and teachers to re-think their attitudes to careers in this areas and may more accurately reflect the nature of the work involved. Few companies, it seems, are working to change girls’ attitudes to SET careers in primary schools even though, as we saw in Chapter 2, girls’ alienation from science often begins very early in their school careers. Comparatively few companies too have a strategic approach to their work in schools and colleges. Initiatives tend to be ad hoc and concentrated on only one or two activities. The Aim High campaign promotes a “best practice” model incorporating “10 Pathways to Achievement” which show the most effective ways for business, schools, colleges and universities to work together.

In this booklet we have examined three key issues in the debate about how to attract more girls in science subjects and more young women into SET careers. We’ve seen how women have become an increasingly large and well educated group in the workforce and why the business case for recruiting more young women into science has grown more powerful. We’ve noted girls’ strong academic performance in science subjects from 5 to 16 years and put forward some possible reasons for their rejection of science subjects, particularly hard science subjects, after GCSE level. Finally, we’ve looked at what employers can do to attract more girls into science education and recorded some of the concerns expressed and issues raised by employers about the way forward in forging industry and education links.
But as we stated earlier, the issues highlighted and the initiatives described here are by no means definitive or exhaustive. Our aim is to stimulate debate among all interested parties and we are keen to receive feedback from any individual or organisation who has comments to make about any of the points made in this booklet. Our intention is then to incorporate some of these responses in a more comprehensive booklet which will be published later this year. We would like to hear especially from those who know of any innovative work which is being carried out by employers and schools to attract more girls and young women into science. We would also like to hear from any organisation which has or is conducting research in this area. We also invite comment on some of the issues raised in the booklet and draw readers’ attention to the following questions:

Do you believe action should be taken to redress the balance of men and women in SET careers?

Why do you think girls remain under-represented in SET subjects after the age of 16 and how can their representation be improved?

Are the new balanced science courses at GCSE, which incorporate elements of all three main sciences, a block to studying separate sciences at A’level? If so, why, and what can be done to tackle this issue?

Are the new GNVQ qualifications in science subjects more appealing to girls than traditional A’ levels? To what extent are they accepted by universities for admission to science degrees?

Would you welcome moves to create more modular science and engineering degree courses, with elective options, and would are these more attractive to young women students?

Employers want schools to develop students’ personal (e.g. teambuilding, communication) skills as well as their science subject knowledge. Universities and professional institutions appear more interested in subject-specific knowledge and skills. To what extent do the demands and objectives of employers, schools, universities and professional institutes conflict and how can these be squared?