Back in June, members of the WISDOM group were fortunate to be able to participate in an ‘Ask Me Anything’ session with Professor Averil MacDonald. A wide variety of the issues and misconceptions surrounding gender and participation in STEM were discussed. One point which particularly stood out to me was the idea that a barrier for girls studying STEM subjects, or aspiring to STEM careers, is the feeling that they will not or do not belong in such an environment. This is discussed at length in a report by the WISE campaign, a body that seeks to inspire women into STEM. For example, the report cites a finding by the Wellcome trust that “young women are more likely to be concerned about science not being a field for ‘people like me’ than young men are”.
Indeed, this issue resonated with some of my own experiences. While I studied an almost entirely STEM programme of A levels (maths, further maths, physics, chemistry and AS German) and never felt that was not a sensible decision, I remember actively choosing against studying A level computing.
One reason for this could have been that teachers were encouraging of my ability to do (for example) physics, but there were no such teachers to encourage me in coding or computer science theory, as this was not on the curriculum up to GCSE level (I hope this is different now, 10 years later). In the interests of fairness to non-STEM subjects, I came to the same conclusion, and had the same lack of encouragement or prior study, for A level economics.
So, with relatively little other information to go on, I looked at the 4 or 5 other students who were going to take the A level computing course. They were all boys, but that didn’t concern me: as it turned out I was going to end up being the only girl in physics and further maths, and the only person studying German. What bothered me was the fact that I felt like I had nothing in common with them. I knew that an interest they all shared was that they liked to play certain computer games, which I didn’t like or didn’t care about, and so I thought I wouldn’t fit into their group. And once I had convinced myself I wouldn’t fit in (despite that fact that I didn’t know most of them that well, so this was not a fair judgement), I decided the course was not for me.
In retrospect, this was possibly a poor decision, especially considering my interest and career in a computer science field today. So, my advice to potential students of STEM subjects (of any gender) is to consider what you are, or might be, interested in, what you are good at, and what skills you would like to develop. Try not to worry about seeming different to others – if everyone has picked subjects they are genuinely interested in, then you will automatically have a common interest with your classmates!
Rachel Player (PhD Student , ISG)