Maths and science – the gender divide

Today’s guest blog is from Childcare Minister Elizabeth Truss, who answers key questions about why not as many girls as boys are choosing to study maths and science to higher levels.

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Q – Why don’t more girls want to study maths and science at A level and Trussbeyond?

A – I think that often young people don’t realise that they are closing off future career opportunities by dropping maths. There is often an incorrect assumption it’s for specialists, or just those that want to do a science degree. Many don’t know that maths and science are becoming the basis of more and more jobs – everything from marketing to law.

With A-level maths, you will earn 10 percent more in your thirties than if you don’t take it. And top universities are increasingly looking for maths A level. For example, 70 percent of students entering Cambridge University have maths A Level.

If students don’t realise that maths keeps their options open, they’re more likely to drop it.

There is also an issue with girls: compared to boys, they lack confidence in maths and science, and their confidence decreases as they get older. We know that this is a culture problem, as the gap is virtually non-existent in many countries.

Q – How will studying maths and science benefit girls?

A – According to the OECD, maths qualifications are the best protection against low pay Truss - girls and scienceand unemployment. Young people will be far more likely to earn more, because there is such high demand for maths skills across the economy.  It will also mean that more careers are open to them in growing areas, like technology and social media.

Q – Won’t studying maths and science only lead to careers in those fields; my daughter doesn’t want to be an accountant or work in a laboratory.

A – No. It would be quicker to name careers that don’t use maths. The world is changing, and whether your child wants to be a lawyer, farmer, designer, inventor, banker, retailer, marketer, charity worker, PR person, entrepreneur – or just about anything – maths is useful. Technology and big data has had a huge impact on all these industries. And the analytical and problem solving skills developed by studying science and maths are in demand in every field, where many of the routine roles have been automated. Like the media: 5 years ago ‘data journalists’ didn’t exist. Now they’re just about the only jobs in journalism that are growing. So far from closing down options, studying maths and science expands them.

Q – Won’t choosing to study science or maths at A level narrow their options to only taking degrees in those subjects?

A – No. The opposite. The Russell Group, an association representing many of the top UK Truss - schoolsUniversities,  say that maths is by far the most commonly required subject for entry to degree programmes at the UK’s leading universities.

The boundaries between arts and sciences are blurring, like digital humanities in English, or statistical analysis in history. When the skills of maths are about logic, argument, and problem-solving, it’s clear that maths is valuable for studying a range of degrees.

Q – My daughter doesn’t know what she wants to do, how could studying maths and science at A level help her?

A – It’s fine if she doesn’t know what to do. Many children don’t know what they want to do when they grow up. Neither do many adults. It’ll only become a problem if she starts to close off her options. That’s what dropping maths means, effectively: denying her a shot at jobs in a huge swathe of the modern economy. The Chinese have a proverb: ‘maths gets you everywhere’ – and it’s true.

Q – Will there be jobs available in areas related to maths and science in the future?

A – Yes, and the trend is only going to get stronger. As technology becomes ever-more important, we can expect that demand to grow in unexpected places. I find in my job as a politician an increasing requirement to understand statistics and systems. This is happening across the jobs market. Just as important, we want all our children to be masters of their own destiny: and maths and science are a sound basis for starting up businesses, too.

Q – Are boys better at maths and science?

A – No. Girls are just as good, but they are more likely to be anxious about maths and give up maths and science earlier. We know from other countries that a gender gap isn’t inevitable: that with the right culture, we can encourage boys and girls to do well in maths and science.

We need to abandon outdated ideas about what girls and boys are good at and the culture where people think it’s acceptable to say “I’m rubbish at maths”, which has an influence on the next generation.

 Q – Don’t girls find maths and science boring? Isn’t it just the case that they don’t want to study these subjects?

A –I often find girls I meet in schools report maths or science to be their favourite subject. The quality of teaching is vital – which is why the Government gives large bursaries to recruit teachers in these subjects.

Maths and science are inherently creative and exploratory. It’s enjoyable to understand the world you live in and be able to master and apply new techniques. We also need everyone, from parents to teachers, to get across the benefits of studying maths and science.

We should get away from the stereotype of the scientist as a “lone genius”. Actually science and maths are very collaborative and the more you practice, the better you get.

Q – What can I do as a parent to encourage my daughter to study maths and science?

A – First of all, know that you’re hugely influential: family attitudes are one of the most important factors in determining what children do. We all need to encourage confidence. No adult would ever say ‘oh, I can’t read’. We need to be just as wary of ever saying “I’m rubbish at maths”.

When teachers and parents are positive about maths and encourage children to try and persist with maths or science problems, they gain confidence. You don’t have to get it right first time and it’s not about coming up with instant answer or being clever. It’s about thinking through the item and solving problems. And that gets better with practice.

It’s also important that children understand how the maths and science can be used in the outside world and how vital it is to their future prospects. We are encouraging employers to work with schools on this.

Q – What is the Government doing about this?

A – In our new curriculum we are making sure core arithmetic is secure in Primary to build children’s confidence. Secondary maths is all about applying that mathematics and tackling more complex problems. We have also developed new rigorous science and computing curricula.

We want to see the great majority of young people continue to study maths to 18 by 2020, and we want to increase the uptake of science. To this end we are introducing new Core Maths qualifications from 2015, slimmer than the A Level, which will focus on problem solving skills and applications of maths.

Already, a record number of students are taking science and maths A Levels and more girls are taking physics GCSE than ever before – almost the same number as boys.

About The Netmums Blog

The Netmums Blog brings you a behind the scenes look at Netmums, as well as some fabulous guest bloggers and an up to date look at what's new on our Parent Bloggers Network.
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