Science is not just for boys

What are the origins of the gender gap in Stem subjects at Oxford?

Seven-year-old Maya's response to the prompt, "Draw a scientist"

Under 30% of Maths freshers at Oxford are female. When I was the only girl in my Further Maths class at school, naïvely, it never crossed my mind that it would be the same here. It’s not just maths – women are disproportionately represented in many Stem (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) degrees. But where does this problem start? How serious is it? And what – if anything – should Oxford be doing about it?

“Good tactical move picking a subject with lots of boys – plenty of choice for a boyfriend,” a family friend joked when I told them I’d chosen to study Maths at university. I laughed, and brushed off the comment.

She was right about Maths being dominated by “lots of boys”, but, clearly, this isn’t appealing enough to get more young women into Stem degrees. Statistics from A-Level students in Summer 2017 show that women are actually 36% more likely to carry on to higher education than their male counterparts. Women are well-represented in higher education as a whole, and this representation is even evident in Oxford: there were 27 male and 30 female applicants per 10,000 population in 2017.

Oxford is closer to gender equity in some Stem subjects than universities nationally. At Oxford, as an average from 2014-16, Biology and Medicine made a slightly higher proportions of undergraduate offers to female than to male applicants (58% and 53% respectively).

National figures illustrate 60% of graduates in Biology and 81% in Medicine were female in the UK in 2016-17, showing them to be, on average, much more female-dominated subjects. Oxford’s equality doesn’t, however, seem to stretch to the traditionally male-dominated subjects. In Maths, 27% of offers were made to women by Oxford University (2014-16), 20% for Physics and 14% for Computer Science. Compared to the number of female graduates in these subjects nationally, it seems that Oxford is considerably worse than other universities at recruiting women in Stem subjects.

Proportion of offers made to women by Oxford University

In the UK in 2016-17, Maths, Physics, and Computer Science had 39%, 41%, and 15% female graduates respectively. In light of the massive underrepresentation of females in these Stem subjects, any efforts by Oxford toward achieving the previously mentioned equality for Biology and Medicine seem slightly misguided. It’s hard not to question why one of the world’s leading institutions makes an effort to close the gender gap in subjects where men are generally worse represented but seems to ignore the shocking disparity in most other Stem subjects.

Seven-year-old Maya’s response to the prompt, “Draw a scientist”

So, why aren’t there more women studying Maths and other Stem subjects at Oxford? In fact, the gender gap in admissions is more pronounced in Oxford across all stem subjects. In Biochemistry, for example, the admissions rates are 16% for female applicants compared to 27% for male applicants.

For many subjects, the difference is only by a couple of percentage points, but this is seen consistently across all Stem subjects, even for those where fewer women apply. Admissions tutors aren’t discriminating against female applicants as such, but the lack of any positive discrimination in preference of women is indicative of little awareness of how marked the gender imbalance is. This may not be an intentional bias, but as MP and former Higher Education Minister David Lammy suggested in his most recent critique of Oxbridge admissions, interviewers are thought to subconsciously recruit their own image, and science tutors are overwhelmingly male. For Mathematical, Physical, and Life Sciences (MPLS), just 6.5% of professors and 12.5% of associate professors are women. The result is that most Stem interviews are conducted by men – I was the only woman in the room for all ve of my interviews, even though there were two interviewers in each. Looking at these proportions of male staff, this must have been the case for many other applicants.

Nationally, Stem degrees tend to be less appealing to women than men, made clear by the previous statistics on graduates. But does this gap between Oxford and national averages mean that Oxford Stem courses are especially unappealing?

It may be that many young women don’t think they are good enough to be studying at Oxford, especially not a Stem subject. Computer Science, Maths, Biomedical Sciences and Medicine are all in the top ten most competitive Oxford courses in terms of offer rates, which could be deterring women from applying.

A study conducted in 2003 by David Dunning and Joyce Ehrlinger is just one of many that examines relationship between female confidence and competence, showing that women tend to be less con dent than men, and that the lack of this self-assurance can obstruct their personal progress. Similarly, a review of personnel records at Hewlett-Packard found that women working there only applied for a promotion when they felt they met 100% of listed job requirements, in comparison to men who were happy to apply when they thought they met 60% of these.

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Applying to Oxford could be seen as somewhat comparable – women are less confident in their own abilities and so are less likely to apply. This seems to resonate with our student population. Jess, a Maths student at Somerville, said that she receives feedback from her tutors to “be more con dent in [her] work” and believes that this lack of confidence results from being in a minority of women on her course. This is especially noteworthy in light of the fact these are the women that have applied successfully for a Stem degree.

They have not been dissuaded by perceived male dominance, but are still aware of a contrast in self-belief. One can only imagine how endemic the problem must be if even the women who are successfully studying Maths at Oxford still find themselves lacking confidence in comparison to their male peers. Beth, a Maths student at Balliol, agrees: “the girls I know are very modest about their maths ability and most are surprised to have [been offered] places”.

The lack of female professors within the MPLS departments here at Oxford may be discouraging female applicants, who face a stark lack of inspiring female academics to model themselves on. With far more women now in a position where they have the opportunity to conduct scientific research compared to several hundred years ago, female scientists are only just coming to the forefront of scientific discovery. Yet there is a need to better recognise the achievements of both historic and contemporary female scientists in the syllabus at degree level. Ella, a Biology student at St Catherine’s, says that of the scientists that learn about behind key discoveries, “there’s very few females, maybe one in ten.”

A ‘Feminist Philosophy’ module has recently been added to the first-year Philosophy course as part of an attempt to tackle the gender imbalance (PPE is a subject with below 30% female undergraduates). The hope is that this will increase the popularity of the course with girls, and a similar approach should be taken within the sciences. Gender equality cannot be achieved without recognising female achievement in such a male-dominated eld in a concrete manner.

The gap is, however, clearly already evident before university entry, and so whilst they have an important role to play, the problem is too complex to be the sole responsibility of higher education institutions. So where do these differences first become evident?

Looking at girls’ achievement in science GCSEs (which are generally compulsory), they appear to perform very similarly to, if not better than their male counterparts in terms of proportion receiving A-A* grades. These higher achievements do not translate into girls choosing the subjects for A-level, however.In Physics, the proportion achieving A-A* was 42% for both male and female students, but a mere 21% of those sitting Physics A-level in summer 2017 were female.

Interestingly, Computer Science is the only Stem subject that already has a noticeable gap as early as GCSEs. The subject is also the only optional one at GCSE level, making it clear that the issue isn’t that female students are less intelligent than their male counterparts, but that something is putting them off these subjects to such an extent that the gender gap emerges as soon as an element of choice is involved.

Around 13,200 female and 53,500 male students took Computer Science GCSE. This makes it less surprising that the gap in terms of numbers of students taking the subject remains at A-level; in 2017 only 9% of those sitting Computer Science A-level were female.

Despite female students’ achievement at GCSE, they are not then choosing Stem related subjects at A-level. Whilst taking a subject at A-level doesn’t necessarily mean you go on to study it in higher education, a lot of Stem degrees do require Science A-levels, so by not choosing the subjects at this stage, the option for these studies in higher education is removed. Hence, once this difference in academic choices is established, it’s almost inevitable that this translates to degree level. Girls in single-sex schools are known to do better in GCSEs but according to Alice Sullivan, director of the Centre for Longitudinal Studies, at the UCL Institute of Education, they are also “more likely to take male-dominated subjects such as Maths and Science at school.” This strongly suggests that having boys within your learning environment has a negative impact on whether girls choose Stem subjects. Perhaps, girls are discouraged from studying subjects when they know they’ll be surrounded by boys in their classes or that at mixed schools the efforts of getting pupils into these subjects is focused on boys.

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Proportion of girls taking Stem subjects at A-Level

It is important to highlight that many boys only select Physics and Maths-related subjects. Gender inequality is not simply an issue of an absence of girls in Stem, but also the lack of boys in the more traditionally ‘female’ A- levels too. For example, just 27% of students sitting English A-level in 2017 were male. The problem of a lack of girls in Stem-related subjects cannot be expected to be solved without promoting a more diverse range of subjects to anyone regardless of gender.

According to a paper published by Psychology professors Gijsbert Stoet and David Geary, girls did as well as or outperformed boys in science tests they conducted in a number of countries.

In relative terms, boys were strongest in maths and girls were strongest in reading, which could underpin subject choices for some girls in higher education. Proportion- ately, Science was their best subject for 24% of girls, for 25% it was Maths, and for 51% read- ing, whilst 38% of boys achieved their highest scores in Science, 42% in Maths, and just 20% for reading.

This study perhaps helps explain why girls aren’t going on to pick science-related A- levels – they are outperforming boys in other subjects too, and are choosing to go into these areas instead. This also indicates why there is a large concentration of boys in the sciences – they are simply performing slightly better in these subjects on an individual level.

Whilst this perhaps help us better understand the gender differences in subject choice at A-level, I’m not convinced this means it has to be the case. What this mostly implies is that girls are as capable as their male counterparts of study- ing Science or Maths A-levels but are not do- ing so, and are consequently unable to take these options later.

Where girls are clearly academically capable of Science A-levels, it would be great to see schools encouraging them more. When I told the career guidance counsellor I wanted to study Structural Engineering, she told me she’d never met a girl interested in it, and questioned whether I wanted to study such a male-dominated subject. I changed my mind about my degree further down the line, but at the time, as a 15-year-old who lacked self-confidence, her uncertainty massively affected me and I doubted whether I was actually interested in or going to enjoy a degree “for boys”.

There is already evidence of Oxford University making a clear effort to encourage women into Stem. Many colleges, including Trinity, Jesus and St Catz, held ‘Women in Science’ open days in February for those studying science at A-level. The days included talks from top academics, and aimed to encourage girls into choosing a Stem degree. Although the feedback for the days was overwhelmingly positive, it did primarily attract those who already knew they wanted to do a science- related degree.

To ensure efforts like these aren’t being made too late, it would be positive to see these open days supplemented by one earlier on during compulsory education, considering that the data suggests the gender gap can be as early as GCSE, where Stem subjects are optional. Open days like these can change people’s minds – Beth found meeting like- minded girls at the ‘It All Adds Up’ Oxford Maths open day aimed at girls “helped change [her] view that Maths at uni was a male-only subject”.

Students in the Mirzakhani Society, which promotes the welfare of women studying Maths at Oxford, will be handing out flyers at the upcoming Maths open days, with the aim to encourage women to apply. The flyers will include comments from current female Maths undergrads. I found the Maths open day at Oxford incredibly intimidating – confident boys were eager to ask and answer questions during the talks, and it left me doubting that I was good enough to apply. Something like these leaflets, showcasing the valuable experiences of women currently studying at Oxford, might have made a difference to how I felt.

A better gender balance in Science departments will take time, and until all the obstacles that currently prevent women from applying and gaining places on Stem courses here are eradicated, Oxford will not be selecting the best students possible. The steps they are taking currently are promising for the future of girls in Stem, but action needs to be taken earlier in girls’ school careers, and therefore more school involvement is pivotal.

The future is perhaps looking more positive – in analysis by David Miller of results of ‘Draw-a-scientist’ studies which prompt children to draw a scientist, the proportion drawing a woman has increased from 1% in the 1960s and 1970s, to 28% today.

Author note: Oxford University’s data currently only categorises students as ‘male’ or ‘female’.