STEM-identity: Why have we spent 30 years getting it wrong?

STEM-identity: Why have we spent 30 years getting it wrong?


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For more than 30 years we have put immense effort and resources into encouraging girls into STEM subjects – with limited success. Or more accurately, we are failing to increase the proportion of girls in physics and engineering, even though girls outnumber boys and outperform boys in STEM subjects overall, at all levels and in both academic and vocational qualifications!

"It seems that the girls have been telling us all along, but we just haven't been listening."

In a recent report for WISE and SEPnet, sponsored by NetworkRail, I pulled together all the research to try to see what we've been getting wrong. And it seems that the girls have been telling us all along, but we just haven't been listening.

Ask girls why they don't want to do physics (and therefore cut themselves off from engineering) and they will tell you that they enjoy physics, they think it's interesting and can see that it's important but they then state simply that "it's not for people like me".

Self-identity and STEM-identity conflict

For me the really novel thing that came out of my reading was linking social science research with education research to work out how to enable girls to resolve the conflict between their self-identity ('people like me') and their perception of the STEM-identity ('not people like me') that prevents girls choosing physics.

As girls enter their teenage years they try to understand who they are and what it is to be female – they begin to construct their self-identity. This is influenced by what people tell them about themselves, what they feel they can do well – their natural aptitudes, where they feel a lack of confidence and what they perceive as 'the female identity' from media portrayals.

"As girls enter their teenage years they try to understand who they are and what it is to be female – they begin to construct their self-identity."
How do you self-identify?

Ask people to 'tell me three things about yourself' and on average people will either tend to provide statements formed using verbs ("I am an engineer, I like dancing, I support this club") or using adjectives ("I am helpful, I am organised, I am friendly"). On average males self-identify using verbs while females self-identify using adjectives (though there's a lot of overlap).

When we talk to young people about STEM subjects and careers we focus on what the engineers and scientists "do", rather than the types of people who choose these careers. The STEM professional, and therefore the perceived STEM-identity, is framed entirely using verbs.

For those of us who self-identify using adjectives we rarely hear physicists and engineers described as "people like me".

"For those of us who self-identify using adjectives we rarely hear physicists and engineers described as "people like me"."
The importance of the 'person spec'

If we are to encourage the under-represented groups to consider that physics and engineering has something for them there are simple things we can do:

  • When we talk to young people we should describe the 'person spec' as well as the 'job spec' of the various careers in STEM.
  • We should emphasise the 'types of people' and their aptitudes (using adjectives) that are successful in the range of STEM careers rather than only focusing on what they 'do' (using verbs).
  • Role models should be asked to talk about the sorts of people they are and not just the jobs that they do.
  • We need to talk to mothers as well as daughters to address their concern, that STEM careers are 'not for people like my daughter'. The evidence is that girls almost never choose a STEM career against their mother's advice.
  • We should avoid competitions which could result in girls seeing the winners as 'not people like me' and therefore reinforcing the conflict between their self-identity and their perception of the STEM-identity.

Overall we need to enable under-represented groups to resolve the conflict between self-identity and STEM-identity which will allow them to see STEM careers as 'for people like me'.

Professor Averil Macdonald is the Non-executive Director of WISE: The Women in Science and Engineering Campaign and Diversity Lead for SEPnet: the South East Physics Network. Click here to download her report. 

Talent 2030 is an ambitious campaign to encourage more talented young people to pursue careers in manufacturing and engineering – including software development. We are particularly focused on inspiring more girls to consider careers in these sectors, working jointly with business and universities to undertake outreach into schools and colleges.

This year Talent 2030 open their second National Engineering Competition for Girls. If you are a school interested in taking part or a student find out more information here and register your interest.

For further Talent 2030 updates follow on Twitter @Talent_2030.

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Other posts that may interest you:

Why we have to stop trying to 'girlify' engineering

We must challenge the incorrect views of the opportunities a career in Engineering offers

We need people of every background to look to engineering as a career choice

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