Podcast - International Day of Women and Girls in Science

How can we support women and girls in science education?

10 Feb 2020 (19:42)

Download this podcast (mp3, 36mb)

To celebrate International Day of Women and Girls in Science, as an exam board, we are considering what Cambridge Assessment can do to support and encourage female learners in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects.

Joining the discussion are three fantastic women from across the Cambridge Assessment Group: Jill Duffy, OCR’s first female Chief Executive, Anne Clarke, Product Owner Agile, Cambridge Assessment English, and Antonia Sudkämper, Researcher, Cambridge Assessment, who are all actively involved in our Women in Leadership staff network group.

Podcast transcript

Alana Walden: [00:00:05.79] Hello and welcome to the Cambridge Assessment podcast. I'm Alana Walden and today we're celebrating the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, a day which recognises the critical role women and girls play in science and promotes full and equal access to participation in science for women and girls. As an assessment organisation, we are considering what we can do to support female learners in STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. Joining me in this discussion are three fantastic women from across the Cambridge Assessment Group, Jill, Anne and Antonia.

Jill Duffy: [00:00:36.52] Hi, I'm Jill Duffy. I'm the chief exec of our UK Exam Board OCR. I was the first female chief executive OCR and really using that role to help support women's education generally, but specifically talking about women in STEM. I should mention that I am not a scientist myself. I'm an English literature graduate, but I am the proud mum of two young scientists. My older daughter Laurel is currently doing a PhD in Oxford and she's made a breakthrough in chemistry by creating a ring of 18 carbon atoms. Such a thing the first time that's been created. My younger daughter Esme is currently doing a Masters in Natural Science here at Cambridge.

Anne Clarke: [00:01:19.54] Hi, I'm Anne Clarke. I'm a product manager Agile in Cambridge English Assessment working on our new products development division. I'm working on an app which helps people prepare for their exams and it's called Exam Lift. It's a new app and we're developing it in an agile manner, so that means we need to look at the data and use that data to inform what our decisions about the product and what we do next.

I have a degree in natural sciences, Metallurgy and Materials science from Cambridge, and I'm a past chair of Cambridge AWiSE, which is a networking organisation for women working in science and engineering in the Cambridge area. I also like Jill have a relative working in science because my husband is a research scientist.

Antonia Sudkämper: [00:02:07.22] Hi, my name is Antonia Sudkämper. I am a researcher at OCR and I previously did my doctorate research in psychology. Hence, I am a social scientist myself and my research during the PhD focused on gender equality, specifically men and gender equality. But I've also been involved in various other academic and non-academic initiatives focusing on gender equality. Among those projects were also projects on women and science.

At the moment, I'm also doing research for OCR on the diversity within our examination papers and I'll be talking about that a bit more later. Generally, I've always tried to make my research and projects quite applied and I aim to make a contribution towards achieving gender equality and part of that is having conversations like this one. So I'm very happy to be part of the discourse today.

Alana Walden: [00:03:02.22] Perhaps you could start with what were each of your experiences of science when growing up?

Anne Clarke: [00:03:06.98] So for me, both my mother and my grandmother were pharmacists so had science backgrounds. I was at an all-girls school and I was good at maths so the sciences were a natural area for me to follow. Some of the memories from growing up was that I was very miffed when my younger brother got the Meccano set for my grandparents on my father's side, not me, because it was me who liked tinkering with things.

I worked at Hywel Labs between school and university, and then I think my first real experience of feeling a bit out of place was the physics practicals at the Cavendish, where there are a handful of women and a lot of guys who seem to know what they were doing with the electronics and that was kind of the first thing that made me feel, oh, I'm not sure this is for me. When I graduated, I sort of took stock of the science and felt like there weren't many men working in here, I'm going to have to be plying my own furrow. That's when I went into I.T. and went to be a computer programmer, because at that time it was a 50 50 graduate intake.

Antonia Sudkämper: [00:04:12.54] My story is quite different to Anne's. I wasn't actually much involved with science at all until I decided to study psychology at university. Our parents raised my brother me largely gender equal. We were both encouraged to play with boys and girl’s toys and engage in any subjects we might have been interested in. But we both ended up with quite stereotypically gendered interests and fears of study, which I think just shows that there's still quite a large societal impact out of the immediate home environment that influences children's interests such as perhaps the school environment or TV or social media these days. So, I remember I had pretty good grades at all topics back then, but I still felt like I was struggling with boy’s subject and primary school, probably because I was lacking confidence and because it was made clear to us that this was still considered to be a topic for boys.

I remember my friend who was really good at maths, and she was always specifically praised for being good at maths despite being a girl. So there was definitely still a lot of stigma around these topics.

Jill Duffy: [00:05:18.84] My experience of science of school, I mean, I really enjoyed at primary school, but that was actually around what I suppose we call sort of natural history now bringing in various leaves and things like that. At secondary school, I did up to 16, I did all the sciences and maths and then when it came to A Level choices, I can remember my dad really encouraging me to carry on with sciences because he, you know, just keep saying to me, you're not gonna get a job if you don't do the sciences.

I think when any parent tells a child to do something, they tend to do the opposite. But also, I did have a passion for literature, I really enjoyed reading. So I ignored my dad's advice. He was an engineer, he in fact, he left school at 14 but he studied engineering at an FE college in in the evening. My mum was a primary school teacher. So they very much let me do what I wanted in the end. But I think my dad would be really proud that my children, his grandchildren have ended up being scientists.

Alana Walden: [00:06:24.06] What do you think the environment is like for women and girls studying and working in science today? Are there any barriers?

Jill Duffy: [00:06:30.0] One of the things that I said at results day this year was to mark the point when we have more girls or more young women studying A Levels in sciences than boys. I think that's you know, that's a really good moment. We've still got a bit of work to do in physics. But actually, across the sciences, there are more young women studying sciences, then men for the first time. I think, you know, we have broken down some of those barriers to girls taking science.

What's interesting, though, is we've broken that down in schools, which is great, we've got that pipeline of scientists coming through. And, when you look at university courses, I think it's about 49 percent of students studying science related courses are now women. It's after that, we still see we have a problem. I think it's about 39 percent at post-grad level are women and that reduces down to twenty three percent of academic staff in universities being women. So we've still got quite a lot of work to do across the whole system. We think some of the reasons for that drop off are to do with how academic funding structures tend to bias towards men and towards short term positions and you may have to move quite a lot to get those positions, which we know may not be great, especially if you've got childcare or caring responsibilities.

We also know there's a lot of unconscious bias still, so females in research posts generally earn about fifth less than males and that gap increases with experience as we get into more senior roles. We know women are underrepresented as authors in high impact journals and that's how career progression works in in those fields. And the academic culture, the culture in labs can be very competitive and hierarchical and that can put off women wanting to stay in a sort of research scientist career. So there's still an awful lot that we can do. There's a lot we can do in schools as well. But I think a lot of progress has been made and there's still quite a lot that we can do to improve things further.

Anne Clarke: [00:08:44.16] So from women at AWiSE I can constantly hear "When I was in my 20s, I didn't think there was a problem. Now I'm in my thirties I can see what the problems are", which very much echoes some of what Jill's been saying about the pipeline. I think it's a lot of the issues are down to the historic environment and the practices. Unlike medical and teaching fields, which have had women in those for longer, I think there's more change needed in that science working environment. There is still a need to produce the same number of papers even if you are taking a career break. You have to do it all. Again, the same issues about dual careers and having to move around, which is a lot harder with your family.

Many of the people I've encountered in AWiSE have come from single sex schools. So there is still something about that mixed education, putting girls off the sciences. Another observation is that many of the very successful female scientists have either been single or have had a husband who's taken the main caring responsibilities. Another thought is that science and I.T. both constantly change, which is why they are enjoyable and fulfilling. But it also makes it very hard if like I did, you have a career break, it's very hard to come back because you've got a lot of catching up to do.

Antonia Sudkaemper: [00:10:05.21] Yeah, I agree with Anne and Jill that, there we hear about a lot of anecdotal and statistical evidence that while women's situation and science is certainly improving, there's still a long way to go. In terms of anecdotes, I'd just like to add one of the most prominent examples from recent years when Nobel scientist Tim Hunt said at a public conference that women are actually a distraction in the lab because they're too emotional and men tend to fall in love with them. When we consider that these are the opinions that some of our most esteemed educators and researchers hold then it's perhaps not surprising, that progress is rather slow.

In terms of statistics, Jill mentioned some stats, but there's also an experimental evidence showing that women still experience a lot of discrimination in academia and in the STEM fields specifically. So I think it's very important to stress that the pipeline of girls being interested in this is not the only issue. But of course, in OCR and Cambridge assessment, we are focusing on schools and hence the pipeline is also where we can make a contribution.

There's some interesting psychological research related to the pipeline on stereotype threat. Stereotype threat is a phenomenon when the awareness of a negative stereotype causes us to perform worse in a particular discipline. This might be because we're worried about personal failure, because we think we might actually be bad at this, because that's the stereotype or might also be worried that we could confirm the negative stereotype. And for women, research has shown that it affects us in any domain that we stereotypically consider to be bad at.

For example, financial decision-making. problem-solving. leadership, and political knowledge. And of course, also maths and science. So, for example, there's been studies showing that women and girls under perform on a maths test when it was described to them as typically producing gender differences and also when the gender identity had been made salient just before they took the test, whilst at the same time when these women girls were not made aware of this gender difference that might occur or weren't made conscious of their gender identity, they performed just as well as men and boys. And this evidence has been found for women, girls of all ages, but it most clearly starts to emerge in middle school and I think that's a very interesting finding for us at OCR as this is, of course, the age where we start working with the children or have an influence through our examination material.

Alana Walden: [00:12:43.83] After the 2019 A Level results, it was revealed that this is the first year that the number of females studying core science subjects A Level was greater than the number of males with 50.3 percent of science exam entries coming from girls. So it kind of seems like the balance is improving. Why do you think more girls are now taking part in science subjects?

Jill Duffy: [00:13:02.16] I think there has been a lot of work across the whole system, actually over probably five to 10 years, probably about 10 years about trying to increase the engagement of girls in science. This has taken place across the curriculum as well as what exam boards have done in terms of the assessment.

For example, about looking at the curriculum in science, making sure there are positive female role models such as Rosalind Franklin covering those in some of our A Levels, but also looking at the types of assessments that we have. As well that there's been some great campaigns like the Crest Awards, but also Wise Women in Science and Technology that's really has raised the awareness of women's success and contribution in science. And, you know, as OCR, we've been looking very much at our specs and the resources and the supporting materials that we have to make sure that we're including positive female role models in them.

Alana Walden: [00:14:03.12] So what still needs to change in science education? What more can we be doing as an exam board? What more can schools and teachers and us as individuals do?

Anne Clarke: [00:14:11.7] So for all of us and I think this applies very generally across all realms of education. How would I feel if this was my daughter and call out bad and thoughtless behaviour at all levels and make sure we look out for unconscious bias to make sure everyone has equal opportunities. As a man, take paternity leave, be involved at home and do get really involved, down to buying the birthday presents. Within schools work to remove that gender stereotyping from schools. We can relate science and engineering to traditional girls' interests as well so, thinking of cooking, following a recipe is scientific method, knitting patterns is coding and girls also enjoy computer games just as much as boys, it just may be different games they're playing.

Jill Duffy: [00:14:59.07] I think as an exam board, what we can do is very much focus on making our assessments more inclusive and representative of the candidates who are taking our qualifications and the teachers who teach those qualifications. And we are looking at ways we can make our assessments even more accessible. We've done a lot of work on that with some of our GCSE science assessments and we're doing some work or some future work in terms of making sure that we're ensuring gender balance in terms of our assessment.

We're also looking at how we can support schools with support material and really highlight some really good practice that we're seeing out in schools. For example, we've got a new GCSE computer science video which features Nicholas Chamberlaine School, which talks about empowering female students and encouraging many females into computer science and they have achieved a 50 50 gender balance in terms of the candidates in that school who are taking computer science. I think schools can make science engaging and fun and look at the practical approaches of science and we're really pleased that at OCR we've seen that the practical study of science has increased with our new specifications.

For universities and other groups, we should look at outreach. For example, both my daughters were involved with Chaos, which is a volunteer student group in Cambridge that goes out to festivals and to schools to really encourage parents and young children to engage with science.

Antonia Sudkämper: [00:16:29.34] Yes, I agree that all educational institutions can and should contribute specifically by communicating that science is a subject that both boys and girls are interested in and both boys and girls can be good at.

Jill talked a bit about what we're doing in OCR. I can maybe add a little to that: I'm currently working on some research because our aim is to communicate in our examination papers and practice materials exactly that that this is for boys and girls and what we're looking at currently in the research is at the item context. In item context we often have protagonists or images and what we're currently trying to do is to make sure that we have an even gender balance, but also we're looking at that ethnicity of protagonists and images so that both boys and girls feel that they are represented in our papers and materials.

We are absolutely committed to getting a better balance there if it turns out that we're not quite there yet. Also, in the item context, what we are looking at are the themes of the item context. Often, especially in maths, there are themes such as football or dancing or something that the actual content is set in. We also tried to make sure that we have an even representation there of topics that boys might be more interested in, girls might be more interested in or even choose topics that are gender neutral in that regard, just to make sure that our items are not more accessible to one demographic group than to another.

More broadly, in terms of educating ourselves, what we're also doing at Cambridge Assessment at the moment is developing a diversity strategy. I'm part of the working group developing this strategy. And the aim is, of course, to raise awareness across all of our employees that this is a topic that matters. In the same way, we're also planning to train our assessors who are also involved in developing products in diversity issues.

Alana Walden: [00:18:34.5] Why is it important to have gender diversity in science?

Antonia Sudkämper: [00:18:38.13] I think it's important for all of society that we have more girls in science because by not having girls inside, we are significantly reducing the talent pool and then we're really missing out and then slowing down scientific progress. I think in our generation and the next generation, we have huge problems to solve such a climate change and everything related to it and I think we just want to make sure that we have all the talent we can get to solve these issues.

Alana Walden: [00:19:08.19] We're clearly going in a positive direction, but there's a lot we can still do to support participation in science subjects and lots to think about. Thank you, Jill, Ann and Antonia, for your time on this International Day of Women and Girls in Science.

Alana Walden: [00:19:21.97] Thank you for listening to the Cambridge Assessment Podcast. You can find all our podcasts on the Cambridge Assessment website. Just search podcast gallery or you can find us on YouTube or wherever you usually listen to your podcasts.

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