Professor Dame Athene Donald's thoughts about the causes of gender disparities in A-level study were recently widely reported throughout the mainstream British press. Prior to this, she delivered a keynote speech to over a hundred of the best and brightest students in the UK with an interest in the Sciences, Technology, Engineering and Maths. Today referred to as STEM subjects, students resident at the Summer School at Corpus Christi College at the University of Cambridge took part in a programme of lectures, practicals and teaching sessions carefully cultivated to capture their intellectual imaginations. The catch? Every attendee was female.
One might reasonably assume that Corpus is one of Cambridge's few women-only colleges, and that the event was one of the University's many outreach and access initiatives. In fact, the summer school was one of the first of its kind at a mixed Cambridge college to specifically address the longstanding - and gendered - subject preferences of students at universities across the UK.
Given a twenty-first century economy that is hungry for workers with training in numerate disciplines, it is surprising that so few women are attracted to study STEM subjects in post-secondary education. As Admissions Tutor at Corpus Christi College, I was disheartened to find that last year, the percentage of female applicants for Computer Science and Engineering across the University were a paltry 12% and 20% respectively. With these dire statistics comes the risk that society misses out on thousands of talented scientists and engineers - at the same time that women miss out on training in areas with high employability and earning potential.
As Professor Donald points out, this is a problem that has its roots much earlier in the education process. Only a fifth of students studying Physics A-level, for instance, are female, likewise only a quarter of those taking Further Maths. This situation leaves much to be desired. At Cambridge, we want to provide a world-class education to the best and brightest women in STEM subjects, but the candidate pool that we are choosing from does not currently represent the population as a whole.
Reversing this trend means intervening early and often: providing opportunities, role models and encouragement for girls long before they enter the secondary school environment. It is my belief that here universities can play a leading role in providing support through gender-targeted outreach and widening participation activities. Most Chemistry, Physics and Mathematics departments at UK Higher Education institutions today run some form of outreach activity through networks of local schools, and this is extremely valuable work. However, I would argue that any outreach program in the sciences - if it is to be effective - now needs to involve a component that is explicitly and exclusively targeted at female students.
There are excellent examples of such activity out there. The Institute of Physics, for instance, has an ongoing project to address gender disparities in science by working not only with students, but with teachers, governors and administrators in 20 partner schools across the country. And along with Professor Donald, there are real-world role models paving the way for a future of female scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. The head of the national organisation STEMettes and one of the speakers at our event, Anne-Marie Imafidon, is but one such example. Partnerships with such role models and the hosting of external events such as all-female hackathons, app building workshops and mentoring programs ought now to be at the top of any HE institution's outreach agenda.
Of course, the culture change that Professor Donald spoke of - away from gender-based toys, and the pervading myth that mathematics and the sciences are 'boys only' - will not happen overnight. But it is even less likely to happen without the full support of the HE sector as a whole. Through partnerships with effective external organisations, and a critical revaluation of the priorities of widening participation across the HE sector, we have the capacity to create change - not only for thousands of talented young women who may realise their potential in one of the STEM subjects, but for society as a whole.