Fears for future workforce as girls turn off from science and engineering

Dr Hilary Leevers, chief executive of EngineeringUK

Concerns for industry’s future workforce have been raised in a new report which says girls are turning off from engineering and science careers. 

A stark gender gap in young people’s interest in engineering and science and a sharp decline in practical science have been identified through a new survey by the Royal Society in partnership with EngineeringUK, with support from Wellcome.

The third Science Education Tracker – which was previously run in 2016 and 2019 - included specific questions about engineering for the first time in the 2023 survey. 

The tracker looked at the responses of 7,000 young people around their attitudes to and experience of science education and careers. 

Key findings from the report included:

  • Only 12% of girls say being an engineer fits well with who they are. 
  • Just 16% of girls think an engineering career is suitable for them.
  • Opportunities for practical science are particularly important for less engaged students.
  • Only a quarter (26%) of GCSE students doing practical work at least every fortnight.
  • Interest in science has declined and a gender gap has opened up.
  • 36% of girls say science is not for them.

Engineering careers are seen as creative and versatile by most school students and over half of young people believe they could become an engineer if they wanted to, according to the report.

However, interest in engineering careers drops as students progress through school - 55% of Year 7 students compared to 39% of students in Year 13. 

For those not interested in a STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) career, girls are more likely than boys to say this is because they don’t enjoy the subjects (57% vs 41%) and that they don’t feel they are good at them (38% vs 20%).

Across all age groups, boys report much higher knowledge of engineering careers than girls and are more likely to say engineering is something for them. 

Only 12% of girls say being an engineer fits well with who they are compared to 38% of boys. And just 16% of girls think a career in engineering is suitable for someone like them, this is up at 44% of boys. 

The report said practical science is the key motivator to learning science (52% of Year 7 to 9 students), with girls statistically more likely to say this. 

Yet, opportunities for hands-on practicals are in decline in school, with only 26% of GCSE students doing practical work at least once a fortnight, according to the report.

Extra-curricular activities boost young people’s interest in continuing their STEM education. 

Half of students who visited a business said they were inspired to continue with STEM subjects and 45% of those who had a talk at school from someone working in STEM said the same. 

Yet just 43% of students had STEM extra-curricular activities in the previous year. 

Dr Hilary Leevers, chief executive of EngineeringUK, said: “We need hundreds of thousands more people entering STEM careers to get on track to meet net zero, to improve sustainability, and for the UK to prosper. 

“The findings of the tracker are a serious wake-up call. We need to do more to keep young people interested in STEM as they progress through school and build their understanding of the opportunities available to them.

“Government must work on ways to ensure the teaching of science, maths and computer science is more engaging for all students and builds confidence in the subjects, particularly for girls. 

“We must also ensure that all students have careers experiences that highlight opportunities in areas like engineering, that are barely visible in the current curriculum.

“The engineering community also needs to step-up and help young people see the range of opportunities for them in engineering and technology. 

“We can inspire them and encourage them to continue with STEM. Where possible we should also be helping to offset the decline in practical lessons by offering hands-on activities.”

Professor Ulrike Tillmann FRS, chair of the Royal Society’s education committee, added: “The wonderful thing about science is that it has a practical side.

“It is not just in your head, you can touch and feel it – whether in the classroom or as part of everyday life. 

“Access to effective hands-on learning that students can tangibly connect to the real world will help make science feel more relevant and meaningful and provide valuable skills for life and work.”

Click here to read the Science Education Tracker report.

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