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'Shocking stereotyping': civil engineers respond to government adviser claim that girls dislike 'hard maths'

Date
05 May 2022

Female civil engineers react to social mobility lead Katharine Birbalsingh’s ‘disappointing’ comments made to MPs during an inquiry into diversity and inclusion in STEM. 

'Shocking stereotyping': civil engineers respond to government adviser claim that girls dislike 'hard maths'
Katharine Birbalsingh is the chair of the UK government's Social Mobility Commission. Image credit: Jørgen Schyberg/Flickr (licensed under: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en)

Saying girls don't like 'hard maths' or physics is wrong and stereotypical, civil engineers have said in response to comments made by a government adviser.

Katharine Birbalsingh, the government's social mobility lead, made these comments to MPs at an inquiry on diversity and inclusion in STEM at the House of Commons last week.

"It is totally inaccurate and stereotypical," Roni Savage, ICE Fellow and CEO of Jomas Associates, told ICE. "I know many girls, including myself, who love tackling maths challenges!"

At the inquiry, Birbalsingh said research shows it’s a "natural thing" that girls don’t want to do 'hard maths' any more than boys.

Beth Holroyd, health and safety adviser at WSP, said: "For someone in [Birbalsingh’s] position to just 'assume' that young girls 'don’t like it' is frankly ridiculous."

"This is disgraceful gender stereotyping, and in 2021 girls out-performed boys at A-Levels and GCSE mathematics, so, what is going wrong?"

Adults who should know better

"Why use the word 'hard' when describing maths?" asked ICE Fellow Dr Priti Parikh, associate professor at UCL and head of the Engineering for International Development Centre.

"We never say 'hard' geography or 'hard' English. The use of [the] word 'hard' can put off potential students from taking those modules."

Her view is reflected in the A-level subject choice data from the 2021 exams. In England, mathematics was the number one subject choice for boys, but third for girls, behind psychology and biology.

The Financial Times reported on research that shows that "messages students pick up from their parents about maths and their parents’ relationships with numbers can change their attitudes towards the subject, and subsequent achievement."

Kathleen Harrison, ICE Fellow and associate director at Jacobs said, in her opinion, that Birbalsingh’s comment was “complete and utter nonsense”.

"Attitudes like that are why we struggle to engage with girls after a certain age in engineering, as adults, who should know better, put them off and don’t actively encourage them."

'Let’s not write off girls from maths'

In 2021, among students taking the maths A-level, 38.9% were girls and 61.1% were boys. In further maths, the gap was wider – 28.8% and 71.2% respectively.

Maths and further maths A-level entries by gender in the UK.
Maths and further maths A-level entries by gender in the UK. Image courtesy of Advanced Mathematics Support Programme (AMSP)

Of all A-levels sat in 2021, Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) data shows only 20.3% of girls studied maths, 2.9% studied physics and 1.1% studied further maths.

"Let us not write off girls from maths," said Dr Parikh.

"It provides entry to a wide range of [professions] and is a valuable life skill," she said.

In fact, many civil engineering courses’ entry requirements specify the need for maths and a science-related subject at A-level, where physics and further maths are ‘strongly encouraged’.

Advertising the advantages of good maths skills

Serena Gough, highways and traffic engineer at AECOM, urged the need to advertise the many applications of studying physics and mathematics.

Her comment coincided with research from UCL’s Institute of Education, which found that showing students, especially girls, the advantages of good maths skills across a range of disciplines was a successful way to improve participation.

Gough also suggested closer monitoring of reasons why students aren’t choosing physics at A-levels, so changes can be made at GCSE level.

"Are A-level option blocks set up in such a way which assumes those taking a creative subject will not also study physics and so is not a timetable option?" she asked, highlighting the need for unconscious bias training in educational settings.

Girls are interested – but where’s the support?

A briefing paper from the Targeted Initiative on Science and Mathematics Education found that "girls need to be inspired towards maths in early secondary school, as after the age of 13 their attitudes are unlikely to change".

Gough said that assumptions like Birbalsingh’s are why there’s a lack of women in the engineering industry.

"The assumption that girls just don’t like maths or physics is why they are not encouraged to consider these subjects and instead are steered towards the arts and more creative subjects," she said.

"I was lucky enough to attend an all-girls school, where there is no gender bias in subject choices. I am happy to have not been hindered by gender norms in my A-level subject choices."

Holroyd, who spends a lot of time working with schools and colleges, questioned the level of support young girls have to pursue STEM careers.

"They are interested in it – but how well are they being supported in pursuing a career in this area by the teachers, their parents, and their peers?"

Women who enjoy and thrive in STEM

In 2018, the Institute of Fiscal Studies conducted research on why more girls don’t study maths and physics.

Its study found that confidence is key.

When it came to physics, despite obtaining high predicted grades, about half the girls in the study said they worried about their performance in class.

They agreed or strongly agreed with these statements: "I often worry that it will be difficult for me in physics classes" or "I worry I will get poor grades in physics."

The figures were halved for mathematics.

Savage said there’s clearly more work needed in education messaging to ensure that young people aren’t conditioned into thinking there are set jobs for boys and girls.

"No one should be put in a shoebox. Young people should have an opportunity to explore their interests and be encouraged to think outside the box."

"There is a lot of work being done in the industry around role modelling, so girls can see women ahead of them who enjoy and thrive in STEM."

  • Ana Bottle, assistant digital content editor at ICE