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This piece was published on https://studybridgeinternational.com/ in March 2015.
A Woman’s Place
A hundred years ago female students in British universities were a rarity, often unwelcome to their male counterparts and the teaching staff. “A woman’s place is in the home,” they were told. Now some 56% of university students in the UK are female, but the gender divide persists in some subjects.
Historically the perception has been that women prefer to study arts subjects and medicine, while STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) are a masculine preserve. This gender stereotyping still exists to a large extent.
A study of English secondary school students in 20131 showed that 54.2% of all A Levels were taken by female students. When the figures were broken down into subjects, girls took 71.7% of English A Levels but only 20.7% of Physics and 39.2% of Maths A Levels. The numbers of female STEM students from other countries studying at British universities suggest that this is common elsewhere too.
However, there are signs that the situation is changing. A UK study done in 2012-13 by Cambridge Occupational Analysts2 shows a 10% rise in interest in Civil Engineering among sixth-form girls compared to seven years previously, a 27% rise for electronic/electrical engineering, an 18% rise for mechanical engineering and a 14% rise for physics.
University figures do not yet reflect this trend. UK-wide only 25% of maths undergraduates and 16% of engineering undergraduates are women; girls wanting to become engineers are guaranteed a welcome.
Alison Ahearn LLB MSc DIC FHEA, Principal Teaching Fellow at Imperial College, London, says, “…engineering is much more female friendly than it used to be: it is just not strange to older engineers to find young women graduates on their projects nowadays. And they realise that there is a real shortage of qualified engineers, so the women who have the backbone to be engineers are in a great position.”
Engineering is not the only discipline suffering shortages of qualified personnel. Most developed countries are showing signs of what one report3 terms “STEM fatigue” (reduced interest in STEM subjects), with numbers of students of both sexes dropping – by as much as 25% for Computer Science, despite the thriving employment market.
Universities will not be lowering their entry requirements but the fact that fewer people are applying for the same number of places means there are great opportunities for students from developing countries, particularly women, to join these courses. Their graduate employment prospects will also be excellent.
In an attempt to boost student numbers, several universities and companies (for example Sagentia and BP) offer bursaries to eligible STEM students to encourage applications from those with limited funds. Some of the bursaries are available only to women, to encourage more female students particularly to enrol on engineering courses of all types.
For any student with an interest in STEM subjects the future looks bright. For young women who can overcome the gender stereotyping, it has never been better. A woman’s place is now firmly in the laboratory, on the engineering site and at the design desk.
4) Alison Ahearn quote: personal email 26.2.2015.