Where Are All the Girls?

16/11/2012 17:17 | Updated 16 January 2013
  • Dr Peter Wothers Teaching Fellow, University of Cambridge for the past 15 years

It was certainly pleasing, and perhaps not too unexpected, to see the numbers of students taking science and maths A-levels increase this summer.

Perhaps the rise is due to the increased exposure of science on the TV - "the Brian Cox effect" - or maybe, with minds focused towards jobs, students feel these traditional subjects are more valued by potential employers.

However, having recently hosted our second annual reception for the very top students who entered this year's Cambridge Chemistry Challenge written paper for year 12 students, one thing was quite striking; despite the wide range of schools and academies represented from right across the UK, only three out of the thirty eight students were girls.

This is also something we regularly see during our admissions rounds - the consistently low proportion of girls applying for the physical sciences, maths, computer science, and engineering.

However, this has nothing to do with differing abilities of the genders in these subjects - I've seen plenty of examples proving that there are equally brilliant girls and boys - it is simply that girls are not choosing these subjects at post 16 level. This year maths was the second most popular A-level subject (after English), yet only a third of those taking maths were girls. For physics the situation was even worse where girls made up less than a fifth of the candidates.

Our small committee for the Cambridge Chemistry Challenge, which is supported by the University of Cambridge Chemistry Department, Cambridge International Examinations and OCR (Oxford Cambridge and RSA Examinations), includes two extremely gifted women chemists - one a secondary school teacher, the other a university academic and they work tirelessly to try to promote the science to women. Their different approaches reflect their different positions: our academic has done a great job coming up with questions highlighting the work of some great female chemists, whereas our teacher strives to show her girls how rewarding it can be working ones way through problems that might at first seem rather intimidating. Often this simply involves demonstrating to the girls that they really can do the problems.

Part of our competition, which aims to stretch and challenge budding chemists, involves a monthly online challenge which the students can do by themselves any time after its launch at the unsociable (UK) time of one second past midnight on the first of the month.

We try to post questions which cannot simply be looked up using a search engine such as Google, but instead require the necessary data and equations to be found using the vast resources out there. The challenge is then working out exactly how to answer the questions and solving them using any available source.

Our "Honours Board" shows there are many highly-competitive women out there, from around the world, just as determined as the men to solve these problems. Perhaps this approach, where anyone can quietly just get on and tackle the problems free from any peer pressures, may help to eliminate gender bias?

One thing seems sure - this innovative competition has provided teachers with a different way to motivate their students and encourage them to engage in the sciences outside of the curriculum. This ability to tackle challenging problems is something that is highly valued by both universities and future employers and is a key point which was taken into consideration when designing the Chemistry Pre-U, an alternative to A-Levels which aims to prepare students for study at university.

Providing students with some challenging problems to get their teeth into, with no pressure other than their personal satisfaction of wanting to solve the problem, can only be a good thing.

Dr Peter Wothers is a chemist at the University of Cambridge and Director of Studies at St Catharine's College.