When I grow up I want to be

Posted on: 28 Jan 2014

By Caroline Jordan, Head of Headington School, Oxford.

A hundred years ago, as a woman your career options were fairly limited, with the vast majority of women having little choice other than to become a professional housewife and mother. Yes, there were a few ground-breaking women scientists even then, but the Marie Curies and Dorothy Hodgkins were very much in the minority. Fast forward to the 21st century, and things look very different – or do they?

There are almost no jobs now that women cannot do – with the exception of frontline roles in the military – but we still see disproportionately few women in stereotypically male careers. Your doctor may be a woman, your accountant or your lawyer, but how often do you get your car fixed by a female mechanic? Or take a charter flight piloted by a woman? Let us take engineering as an example. Only seven per cent of engineers in this country are female. How can that possibly be representative?

We are not without role models at the very top of their field. Professor Dame Ann Dowling is set to be the first female president of the Royal Academy of Engineering. Her father was an engineer, which is how her interest was sparked. We need to show girls that engineering is a viable option – and in the current climate, a virtually guaranteed, well-paid job. UK industry needs in the region of 180,000 engineers a year, and we are only producing about half that number.

Half mixed state-schools do not have a single female A Level Physics candidate – despite the fact that girls take the subject in equal numbers at GCSE and indeed outperform their male counterparts. Institute of Physics research showed four boys for every girl took Physics at A Level. But it is not a lost cause – at Headington nearly one in five girls goes on to study Physics in the Sixth Form.

We plan our teaching according to the broader range of subject interests girls typically have. For example the beautifully arty patterns called Lissajous figures when teaching about oscillation, the history of nuclear warfare as opposed to simply the mechanisms of the weapons, the issues surrounding developments in medical imaging and how society views them. We also enter the Student Robotics competition every year, where girls build their own robots – engineering in action.

And it works - last year eight girls left Headington to study subjects in the field of chemistry and engineering.

Only a few months ago, Business Secretary Vince Cable warned Britain’s lack of female engineers was causing serious problems. As a Physicist and the Head of a girls’ school, I am proud to be providing an education that is likely to inspire the future female engineers, computer scientists and architects that the UK will need in order to help it come out of the recession.

This is a guest blog from the Headington School website.

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The ISC Press Office posts blogs on behalf of ISC schools and Associations.