As the mother of two young girls, the recent news from the OECD study that girls may be less likely to translate their success in science subjects into the workplace because of a lack of confidence is worrying. The study also showed that girls were particularly lacking in confidence about not knowing 'the answer' - something which isn't always important in scientific investigations. It was news like this that prompted me and my team at the Royal Institution to start our project for families called 'ExpeRimental' to inspire and support parents to do science at home with their children, just as they would do arts and crafts, cooking or drama.
There have been many reasons suggested by social scientists for the lack of women currently working in science and engineering. Currently only 13 per cent of all STEM jobs in the UK are occupied by women. A lack of female role models, the lack of support for flexible working and the fear more prevalent among girls of not getting the 'right' answer.
However, one of the most overarching contributions to this seems to be parents simply not talking to their daughters about science as much as they do with their sons, for example when visiting museums. Our video project has contributors that are male and female - mums doing activities with their sons, dads with their daughters, uncles with nephews, even a pack of Brownies succeeding at making butter from scratch using only an understanding of basic chemistry and muscle power. By showing these diverse contributors trying out simple science activities in their homes up and down the country, not only do we hope to provide role models for the kids but more importantly in this case, role models for the parents too.
I think it's especially important that girls aren't put off science by the feeling that 'it's not for them'. In an ideal world, we wouldn't have to work so hard to help girls overcome this feeling because the cultural, social and familial triggers that prompt it wouldn't exist. Just as they don't currently for boys. I was so pleased to see the recent funding of the Kickstarter project that wanted to design dresses for girls that featured robots and dinosaurs. Small changes like this will hopefully make parents less likely to have unconscious biases that turn their daughters away from studying and enjoying science and engineering- related subjects.
I was pleased and proud to see that our video project has already had an effect among my own friends with daughters too. One friend shared with me a photo of the science homework that she had helped her daughter with. As she had a background in arts and drama, and didn't really enjoy science when she was at school, this feedback was particularly special for me. I was also overjoyed to receive a phone call from an exhausted yet elated friend, who didn't go to university or study science beyond GCSE, telling me about the amazing day she had while teacher training doing ExpeRimental activities with her class of Reception age children.
I can only hope that small changes in perception, attitude and most of all confidence like these, repeated over and over again in homes across the world, will result in more girls feeling more confident about science, and families feeling more positive (and less scared!) of tackling a science activity themselves. Then we may finally achieve a science and engineering workforce that is made up of the most talented and enthusiastic individuals this country has to offer, regardless of gender.