17th May 2022

Encouraging the next generation of girls to be excited about studying maths and pursuing careers in STEM

Throughout my career and in my years teaching and running schools I have always been clear about the importance of maths and STEM subjects.

I want to encourage the next generation of girls to be excited about studying maths and pursuing careers in STEM. And I am committed to finding ways to remove barriers to girls’ participation in maths, this theme emerged in the survey I conducted last year.

In April 2021, I launched The Big Ask survey. This was a national consultation exercise with children in England, to hear about their aspirations and worries for the future. We received over 550,000 responses, making this the largest ever survey of children in England.

51% of the responses that we received were from girls. From their responses, it was clear that girls are extremely ambitious, and have a range of aspirations that they wish to pursue in the future – from being surgeons, to working as police officers.

Many girls mentioned maths in their responses. As one 8-year-old girl said:

‘I want to have a good job by doing well in school and […] being a mathematician’ – Girl 8.

We know, based on the national attainment statistics, that girls obtain higher or similar grades then boys in maths and physics. In 2021, 88% of girls who studied Maths A level achieved an A* to C grade compared to 84% of boys. These figures are very similar for those who took Physics A level. Nearly a quarter of girls who took Physics received an A* compared to 20% of boys.[1]

However, too often, girls highlighted the barriers they face to pursuing their ambitions, particularly those relating to maths and STEM. Girls explained how harmful gender-based stereotypes continue to circulate in society, which promote restrictive narratives about girls’ roles, aspirations, and abilities. As one 14-year-old girl wrote in her response to The Big Ask:

‘I think that the stigma in girls in science and maths is very toxic. From very young, as a girl I didn’t see any girls taking on that career path and just thought that girls couldn’t do this’ – Girl 14.

From this response, it is clear that girls need encouragement and positive role models to support and motivate them to achieve their goals. As one 16-year-old girl told us, girls need:

‘The right role models to inspire them and […] good teachers to motivate them to do their best so they have lots of options in terms of further and higher education and job opportunities’ – Girl 16.

It is vital that we support girls in achieving their ambitions – through effective public policy, as well as promoting a range of role models for girls, who demonstrate the variety of careers, subjects, and hobbies they can pursue.

This is why, alongside Claire Coutinho MP and Selaine Saxby MP, I hosted a roundtable with education leaders who are already doing great work at encouraging girls into maths and STEM. We were lucky enough to be joined by Tiffany Woods-Shepherd from King’s Maths School, Deborah McCarthy from Academies Enterprise, Bruno Reddy from Maths Rockstars, Shahina Ahmed from Eden Girls’ school, Rachel Jerrold from Sir Isaac Newton, Naveen Rizvi from Astrea central and Vanessa Ogden from Mulberry Academies.

During the roundtable, we spoke about the importance of building confidence in girls, especially young girls, to actively participate in maths. And spoke about the importance of showing different career paths maths can give you and the importance of breaking down the gender stereotypes.

We then turned to solutions – how can we ensure that girls are supported to achieve their ambitions. One tool – which I am launching on National Numeracy Day tomorrow – is an interactive quiz connecting the KS3 maths curriculum to careers, skills and everyday life. This will give young people the opportunity to recognise the applications of the maths they are using in their lessons and ‘match’ them with careers suited to their skills and interests. I hope this tool enables young people to see the opportunities that maths can provide.

Of course, this is not the only solution, and we have much more to do to, but I hope with continued efforts we can begin to match the ambitions shown in The Big Ask.

[1] Permanent data table: ‘Entries and Results – A level and AS by subject and student characteristics (single academic year)’ from ‘A level and other 16 to 18 results’ – Gov.uk, link.