Half of Secondary Schools Don't Have Girls Studying A Level Physics

03/10/2012 13:23 BST | Updated 03/12/2012 10:12 GMT

The UK's Institute of Physics revealed this week that almost half the secondary schools in England don't have a single girl studying Physics at A level.

Since it was launched by the Council for Industry and Higher Education last year, the 'Talent 2030' campaign has been warning educators and policy makers that it is time to wake up to the way the UK is squandering the talents of its women and girls.

This strikes at the heart of the UK's future international competitiveness. We need a good supply of talented engineers to feed our innovation and hi tech industries. Almost 60% of undergraduates are women and yet woefully few of them are taking degrees in engineering. A survey conducted by Talent 2030 last year showed that even those who study engineering at University are less likely to go on to follow careers in engineering than men. As a result, the UK has the lowest proportion (9%) of female engineers in Europe. If girls aren't taking Physics A level at school, that is a situation that will be difficult to improve.

Our talent 2030 sets out a series of targets over the next 20 years to raise women's participation in physics at A level through to Phd in order to reach 20% of UK engineers being women by 2030.

If we are to more than double the proportion of female engineers in the next 15 or so years then we need to act now to encourage girls to engage with science, technology and maths at school. We believe this is possible and that a number of things need to be done now.

Firstly, schools and colleges need to set themselves a target for the number of girls achieving A levels physics at grade B or above. To drive that change we urge the government to include the number of girls passing A level physics at grade B and above in school and college league tables. Schools and government also need to cooperate to provide much better information and guidance on careers in engineering for women.

Secondly, Universities need to promote placements and internships in all manufacturing and engineering courses.

Thirdly, businesses should commit to supporting a major manufacturing and engineering mentoring scheme, particularly aimed at girls before they reach 14.

One problem is that women still think of engineering as dull and male-centric. There is a pervasive image of grease, hard hats and building sites. But our research shows that girls are prepared to engage with engineering given the right motivation. They are interested in solving environmental problems and helping to save the planet. They are also interested in the relatively high salaries that can be achieved in the sector, and why not?

I recently heard an inspirational speech from Jane Wernick, a leading structural engineer who led the project to build the London Eye among others. She explained that she had attended a girls' school which had produced no engineers. When she was 14, a woman engineer visited the school. She said she enjoyed the job because she was good at maths and physics and liked making things. The news that a talent at maths and physics had been used to create the beautiful and practical things all around her was a revelation to Jane - she decided there and then to study civil engineering.

We need a national movement to inspire our women and girls with the transformational possibilities of engineering - for themselves and for the world around them.

Girls are interested in pretty straightforward things when it comes down to it -- a decent salary and a chance to save the planet are high on their lists. If we can encourage more to choose engineering, then by 2030 we could have a bright, well-motivated and collaborative engineering sector.