'We must tackle gender stereotyping in STEM subjects'

Posted on: 27 Feb 2019

Nigel Helliwell, head of St Faith’s School in Cambridge, argues that tackling the issues of gender stereotyping in STEM subjects is vital given its importance in the modern world.

Last year, Adam Hargreaves, son of the late Roger Hargreaves, creator of the well-known Mr Men and Little Miss books, introduced his latest personality – Little Miss Inventor. The timing of the arrival of this character, empowered by her ability to create new inventions to help her friends, is, I suspect, no coincidence. 2018 was the UK Year of Engineering. A time to celebrate the considerable contribution of engineering to our society and more importantly, to recognise the importance of engineering in our children’s futures.

The timing of the arrival of Little Miss Inventor is not, I believe, the only coincidence. As a youngster who uses her brain power to create solutions to solve practical problems - the true essence of engineering – Little Miss Inventor is the perfect role model for our young generation, both girls and boys. Barely a week passes by without the role of women in STEM industries featuring in the news and the need for schools to do more to break the stereotypical male image of these school subjects. When Dame Ann Dowling, professor of mechanical engineering and deputy vice-chancellor at Cambridge University, spoke at our prize giving, she pointedly referred to the image of the typical engineer, a man on a building site wearing a high visibility jacket and hard hat. Why, she asked, would young women want to pursue a profession which is so visibly male?

Most commentators on this subject agree. We must do more at the earliest stages to encourage children to develop naturally, without gender determining their choice of subjects in schools and ultimately, their future careers. Given the importance of STEM in the modern world, tackling the issues of gender stereotyping in STEM subjects is vital.

Schools have a crucial part to play. While the focus of many educational, political and industrial advisors has been on STEM education in secondary schools, I believe that this is too late. By the age of 12, gender stereotypes may already be influencing pupils’ views of subjects. The answer is to deal with the issue earlier, even at an age when children first read the Mr Men and Little Miss books.

In 2015, St Faith’s introduced engineering as a core curriculum subject for all pupils aged 7 to 13, a new discipline in which pupils work in project teams to solve problems by applying their knowledge of science, maths, computing and design. Even the younger children in the Pre Prep have exposure to our engineering curriculum, testing their creativity skills in age appropriate challenges. Teaching engineering from such an early age normalises the subject for the children and makes it part of their day to day vocabulary. Young minds at this age are not biased in terms of gender and ability to perform a task – girls and boys alike will attack a challenge with great gusto, showing little or no inhibition.

Of course, the role models that young minds are exposed to will have a considerable impact on their views. Whilst schools cannot and should not select staff according to gender, it is remarkably effective when teachers assume roles which fly in the face of gender stereotypes. At St Faith’s, both our engineering teachers are women, both are engineering graduates and both are our very own Little Miss Inventors!

Indeed, our head of engineering, Dr Nicola Hoyle, studied maths at Oxford University at the age of 16, completed a PhD at Southampton University, worked for the Williams Formula 1 team and led a team a visual effects company, Double Negative, which won an Oscar and Bafta for their computer graphics on the film Inception. The fact that she created special effects for some of the Harry Potter films elevates her ‘hero’ status amongst our pupils! During maternity leave, she spent time in secondary schools teaching A-level maths. When discussing gender stereotyping in STEM, Dr Hoyle comments, ‘I soon realised that A-level was too late. Pupils had already chosen their subjects and their courses at university. I realised that a love for problem solving had to come at a very young age, to open up the world to the children and show them what is possible.’

After just three and half years of teaching engineering at St Faith’s we are beginning to see the results. In a recent careers survey, the most popular option chosen by Year 8 pupils was engineering, with as many girls as boys selecting it. In computing, a subject incorporating coding, introduced at St Faith’s in 2012 and now taught to all pupils from age 5, more girls than boys feature in our top sets, another pleasing statistic given the traditional male image of this subject.

So why not consider introducing engineering to your young girls and boys? We would be more than happy to help. St Faith’s now runs annual IAPS engineering courses aimed at teachers of Science and Design Technology, as well as senior managers, who want to learn about how to teach this new subject, and introduce it to the junior/prep school curriculum; the next courses will be in the autumn of 2019. We also plan that in the near future, our schemes of work will be published and accessible to all schools, and all proceeds will be used to promote the teaching of Engineering in maintained schools.

Our dream is that gender stereotyping in STEM subjects will one day be a thing of the past. For this to happen, we believe STEM subjects must be a key part of the core school curriculum from an early age.

About Nigel Helliwell

Nigel Helliwell is head of St Faith’s School in Cambridge.