IOP gender balance work recognised by Scottish government

Last week we were absolutely delighted to have the success of our approach to tackling the under-representation of women in physics and STEM highlighted by the Scottish government.

It has included a reference to the IOP’s pilot work in its new STEM Education & Training Strategy for Scotland and undertaken to “embed practice from the successful Institute of Physics Gender Balance project across all schools by 2022”.

Scotland has similar issues to other parts of the UK in terms of a lack of gender diversity in physics and engineering. For example, in 2016 only 27% of entrants to Higher physics were female, although across all subjects 55% of entrants were female. Worse still, in 2015 only 3% of engineering modern apprenticeships were taken up by girls.

Evidence suggests that pervading gender stereotypes play a role in deterring young girls from taking subjects such as physics and engineering. Building on earlier work in England, the Improving Gender Balance Scotland (IGBS) project aims to establish school interventions to effect long-term cultural change – with a particular focus on challenging gender stereotypes in STEM subjects.

The focus of the project is helping teachers and senior managers within schools and early learning centres understand gender stereotyping, and develop approaches to tackle it. The interventions are evidence-based and are carried out by the schools – facilitated and supported by the IGBS team.

We feel particularly privileged to be in the unusual position of being able to work with nurseries and primary schools, as well as secondary schools. Plenty of research has indicated that awareness of gender stereotypes starts at a very early age, and efforts to address this should ideally start as early as possible.

Stuart Farmer, new chair of IOP Scotland, said: “We ourselves have become much more aware of just how pervasive gender stereotypes are, and how much they influence young peoples’ perceptions of themselves and their interests – from what they read, which toys they choose, and ultimately which subjects and career paths they choose.

“Of course, there is nothing wrong with a young person making choices that look like a stereotype – so long as those choices are not constrained by any conscious or unconscious expectations.

“We have watched the schools we work with now becoming increasingly aware of these issues, and increasingly confident and creative in the strategies they trial to counter this.”

Some strategies are big, and take time to implement, but some of the changes are relatively small things. One teacher said to us recently that one of the most important things he has learned through working with the IOP is “understanding how small changes can make the biggest impact”.

The pilot project is in its third and final year, funded by Skills Development Scotland and managed by the IOP in partnership with Education Scotland. By collaborating with Education Scotland it has been possible to align the IGBS project with its work on STEM. We now look forward to working with the project partners on how the good practice developed can be rolled out across Scotland.

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Heather Earnshaw and Charlotte Govan

Heather is the project manager for IGB Scotland and Charlotte is a project manager for IGB Scotland

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