It’s Not Students We Need To Educate About STEM Careers, It’s Their Teachers

The shortage of STEM graduates is often laid at the door of students making their high school subject choices, but perhaps it’s not students we need to educate about STEM careers, it’s their teachers.

More than a quarter of male teachers – and one in six female teachers – believe STEM careers are more suited to boys than girls, according to a new survey.

And this attitude rubs off on students, with twice as many girls as boys believing that STEM careers are not for them.

The shortage of students graduating in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects has been a persistent story in recent years, with one report claiming an annual shortfall of 40,000 skilled STEM workers in the U.K. alone.

A skills gap of this magnitude hampers the ability of industry to compete at a global level, hampering economic growth, according to employers.

The shortfall has a clear gender angle, with women making up just one in six engineering graduates and less than 10% of the engineering workforce.

And now it appears that the attitudes of high school teachers could be helping to contribute towards this imbalance, with substantial minorities of both male and female teachers believing that women were not as well equipped for careers in STEM disciplines.

Among male teachers, 29% thought that STEM careers were more for boys than for girls. The equivalent figure was lower among female teachers, but at 16% still represents almost one in six.

Almost a quarter – 23% – of all teachers said they did not feel confident or did not know if STEM opportunities existed for girls, according to the survey.

This attitude seems to rub off on their students. More than a quarter – 27% – of girls did not believe STEM careers were for them, almost twice the equivalent figure for boys of 14%.

And these beliefs are reflected in today’s A-level results for U.K. 18-year-olds, where boys dominate STEM subjects, at least in terms of entries.

Despite being responsible for 54% of exam entries across all subjects, girls made up just 10% of all computing entries and 21% in physics. Just four out of 10 A-level math students were female, dropping to 27% in the extension subject, further maths.

Ignorance about STEM options is not confined to girls. A third of all students said they did not know enough about STEM careers, according to the survey of 1,400 high school teachers and 1,000 students, carried out for energy company Centrica.

But it does point out the need to ensure that teachers are better informed about the STEM workforce, in the knowledge that their attitude can have a huge impact on the beliefs of the students they teach.

And this in turn puts a duty on STEM employers to step up their outreach work and make sure they are doing their bit to educate teachers, according to Catherine O’Kelly, industry development director at Centrica’s British Gas division.

‘There’s a clear role and need for business to provide more support so that both teachers and students have a better understanding of the exciting options that are available through STEM careers,’ she said.

‘We should encourage students, especially young women who are less confident about pursuing STEM careers, to explore the varied routes into the profession which range from apprenticeships to degrees, and are open to all.’

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