The yearly A-Level results, the highest standard educational qualification in UK schools, have been published today, revealing a growing gender gap in key STEM subjects.
Across A-Levels in ICT, mathematics and further mathematics the gender gap between men and women successfully passing has increased, with a greater number of male students completing the qualifications than female students.
In mathematics, the gender gap is now 11.5%, while in computing it is 1.4%. In Physics, which has seen marginal improvements, it remains at 4.9%.
The news indicates that efforts to get more girls engaged with STEM are not proving adequately successful, prompting disappointment and frustration from women in tech experts.
“Another year, another frustratingly small number of girls taking STEM exams compared to their male counterparts. Schools need to step up to show pupils that old-fashioned misconceptions that these subjects are for boys are exactly that – misconceptions,” said Agata Nowakowska, AVP at Skillsoft.
A-Level results gender gap poses problems for post-Brexit Britain
The STEM gender gap is a particular issue for post-Brexit Britain due to country’s increasing reliance on a digital economy to maintain and build its economic might after it leaves the European Union.
An essential part of this is a skilled workforce, with the UK needing computing and maths-based skills in growing quantities to support the country’s technology industry. With recruitment from abroad becoming harder post-Brexit, the UK will be hoping for more of its own citizens to plug the gap, but while a STEM gender gap remains this will limit the availability of candidates.
The absence of women from technology teams can also introduce additional challenges, such as making it harder to combat bias in artificial intelligence.
However, there are also issues that the technology industry needs to tackle.
“Tech is such a vibrant sector at the moment – it has, and will continue to have, such a huge impact on society and our day-to-day lives. But it still has some way to go from a diversity perspective,” said Dr Anya Rumyantseva, data scientist at Hitachi Vantara.
“Businesses in this space must hold the door open for people from all walks of life and lead by example. It is already evident that having a diverse team is beneficial for a business’s bottom line. However, diversity is an issue that continues to pop up in all sectors – not just tech, everywhere.”
Tackling the STEM gender gap
The news was, however, not all bad when it comes to the STEM gender gap.
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Women outperformed men at achieving the highest grades, while when looking at all science subjects, not just the exact sciences currently in demand in the digital economy, the number of female students appears to have outpaced men.
“The fact that this year’s A-Levels suggest female entries for the sciences have surpassed male entries for the first time is a promising hint that efforts to tackle the diversity challenge are starting to move the needle,” said Rumyantseva.
“To continue on this positive path, all parties involved need a considered strategy to encourage diversity in the field of exact sciences (data science, maths, engineering) that extends beyond the classroom.”
For the government, then, the advice is to build on existing successes and put a greater focus on programming and other in-demand STEM subjects in schools.
“There are great initiatives out there allowing girls to dip their toe into areas such as coding, with Code Girls First being a prime example. These help demystify areas that girls have had very little exposure to,” said Nowakowska.
“We need to take this model into the classroom, but this is as much about educating teachers, as it is students. Some are unconsciously biased about girls and STEM. The sooner we can make these changes, the sooner we can have more equality, diversity and balance in the world of technology.”