Women in STEM - How do we encourage more girls into STEM roles? - Shelley James


For the first time ever there are over 1 million women working in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths (STEM) and although the campaign to get more girls in to STEM related subjects at colleges and universities has been positive, with girls actually outnumbering boys in some subjects, there is still a huge inequality between the percentage of men and women going in to STEM professions. According to statistics from WISE only 24% of the whole UK STEM workforce are women. 


STEM women used data from UCAS and HESA as well as findings form WISE campaigns to look closer at the statistics surrounding women studying STEM courses and those in working in STEM fields. 


Recent academic data shows that the number of girls choosing STEM GCSE’s is increasing year on year and female students account for 35% of the total STEM GCSE cohort, however there is a significant disparity across the subjects, with females making up nearly 40% of the cohort in Physical Sciences and Mathematic subjects, they only account for nearly 19% of the cohort in Computer Sciences and Engineering and Technology subjects. Girls studying STEM GCSE subjects actually out perform their male counterparts in subjects such as double award science (5.1%), computing (4.5%) and engineering (19.6%) whereas subjects such as separate sciences, maths and statistics remain fairly equal. 


Since 2015 the overall percentage of women graduating from core STEM degrees has risen but they still only account for 29% of all graduates in these subjects. The highest percentage of female graduates are from physical science subjects at 42% and the lowest being in engineering and technology and computer sciences at ~15%. 


Since 2009 the amount of women working in STEM occupations has almost doubled, and in 2019 this total reached over 1 million, however, they still only account for 24% of the total STEM workforce. The number of women working in engineering has nearly doubled in the last 5 years, yet women only make up 12% of the total workforce. The workforce with the most equality in gender diversity is seen in science where women account for 43% of the workforce. 

Increasing the female STEM workforce

Girls start to lose interest in STEM at around the age of 15, and so it is important to reach them before this age in order to spark their interest and get them passionate about STEM. 

Some of the ways we encourage girls to take up STEM courses and careers include 

  1. Exposure from a young age and maintaining exposure throughout secondary school 
  2. Encourage participation in STEM programmes (STEM ambassadors etc)
  3. Break down stereotypes
  4. Introduce role models

Famous women in STEM

Grace Hopper – American computer scientist and Naval officer 

Grace was one of the first computer programmers at Harvard, as well as being one of the first women to achieve a PhD in mathematics at Yale. She is best known for her contributions to the development of computer language and upon retirement, at the age of 79, Grace Hopper was the oldest serving officer in the U.S armed forces.

Marie Curie – French-Polish physicist 

One of the most famous female scientists, Marie Curie was known for her work on radioactivity research and for being the first woman to receive a Nobel prize and the first person ever to win two Nobel prizes in different fields (chemistry in 1908 and physics in 1911). Working alongside her husband, Marie Curie discovered two new elements in 1989 (radium and polonium) and went on to develop the theory of radioactivity. 

Ada Lovelace – British mathematician

Ada was a mathematician and writer with a very famous father (Lord Byron), she is best known for her work on the proposed mechanical general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine. She is referred to as the first computer programmer for creating an algorithm in the 1800’s but her contributions to computer science were not fully appreciated until the publishing of her notes in the 1950’s by B.V Bowen.   

Helen Sharman – British chemist and astronaut 

Helen became the first British astronaut (and cosmonaut) when she travelled to the Mir space station in 1991. Helen was a chemist who worked in research and development until she applied to be the first British space explorer after hearing about the opportunity on a radio station. Since returning from space, Helen has received several honorary degrees from UK universities and continues to promote STEM in schools across the UK. 


Shelley James is NCFE's Subject Specialist for Science, collaborating with others during qualification development and reviews or advising the qualifications development team on vocational matters, including content writing and assessment related development advice specific to science.