Women in STEM: to the stars

Tuesday of this week was one of those days when the stars aligned and I saw the same issue from multiple angles all within 24 hours. The issue was gender inequality in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths.

Attitudes to STEM subjects by gender

First thing in the morning, I received an email bulletin highlighting some research which had just been published on attitudes to STEM subjects by gender at KS4. The findings made for challenging reading:

  • Girls enjoy STEM subjects less than boys: The proportion of male pupils who ranked KS4 STEM subjects first for enjoyment was almost twice that for females: 59% vs. 32%.
  • Girls are less likely to say STEM is their best subject: When asked which subject they were best at, the proportion of male pupils who ranked a STEM subject first was 60%, which again was almost twice as high compared to females at 33%.
  • Boys are more likely to think STEM leads to a job: When asked about which subjects were most likely to lead to a future job, 69% of male pupils ranked a STEM subject first compared to 51% of females.
  • Girls and boys both name STEM as leading to highest paid jobs: When asked which would lead to the highest paid job, 81% of male pupils named a STEM subject compared to 77% of females.
  • Girls are less likely to pursue STEM at A level: When asked what they planned to study at A-Level, female pupils made up the minority of those naming STEM subjects. Particularly, in Engineering (14% / 86%), Computing (15% / 85%) and Physics (22% / 78%).

Combating gender inequality is a particular mission of mine, and it is one of the reasons we have named our new Science and Technology building after a prominent female scientist, Professor Dame Athene Donald. We are doing better than the national average at Churchill, where we have a 54% to 46% split of students taking Science and Maths courses in our Sixth Form. But there is still work to do, as there is considerable variation between subjects.

Dr Sue Black and Bletchley Park


After school that same day, I was listening to an interview with Sue Black on my drive home. Sue Black is a prominent software engineer, keen to promote women in computer science. She was also instrumental in the campaign to save Bletchley Park, where ten thousand people (including Alan Turing, after whom another of our buildings is named) built some of the first computers and cracked the Enigma code used by the Nazis during World War Two. More than half of the people who worked there were women. No-one had any previous experience of computers. In 2019, there are fewer women working in tech than there were in the 1960s. How has this happened? Sue Black was an inspirational figure, challenging the stereotype of the software engineer and the systems analyst to show that women have a vital role to play in the future, as well as the history, of computer science.

Professor Jo Dunkley and Henrietta Swan Leavitt


Professor Jo Dunkley, OBE

Later that evening, I was driving back to school for governors’ meeting listening to a science podcast about how to measure the size of the universe. One of the guests was Professor Jo Dunkley, a physicist from Princeton University in America. Her research is in cosmology, studying the origins and evolution of the Universe, and she made this complex and challenging subject accessible and fascinating. She too described how, in her field, women make up 20% or less of the physicists looking at space, the stars, and cosmology, yet the women were every bit as talented and clever as any of the men. And she too had a tale of how, in the past, women made a huge contribution to the field of cosmology, astronomy and astrophysics.


Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868-1921)

Professor Dunkley told the story of Henrietta Swan Leavitt, an astronomer working at Harvard University in the early 20th century. She was part of a group of women known as the “Harvard Computers“, hired to carry out calculations and process astronomical data in the days before electronic computers. In those days women were not allowed to operate the telescopes themselves – this was a male only environment. Instead, they studied the photographic plates produced by the telescopes. It was in doing this that Leavitt, who was profoundly deaf following an illness, made her ground-breaking discovery. She was studying a group of stars called the Cepheid variables. These stars pulsed at different rates, and Leavitt worked out a mathematical relationship between the brightness of these stars and the frequency of their pulses. This relationship, now known as “Leavitt’s Law,” allowed astronomers to measure the distance from Earth to faraway galaxies for the first time. It also enabled future astronomers such as Edwin Hubble to firmly establish that the universe was expanding.

Gender Equality

It was a freakish coincidence that, after reading about the inequality in perceptions of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths between boys and girls in 2019, I should then be confronted with these fantastic examples of prominent women in STEM from the present day and the past. The majority of the code-breakers of Bletchley Park were 18 year-old women, just out of school, with no prior experience of computer science – yet they contributed to cracking the Nazi codes and saving millions of lives by shortening the Second World War. The very notion of computer science was, of course, invented by a woman – Ada Lovelace, back in the 1840s. In the present day, women like Dr Sue Black are blazing a trail for women in computer science and technology.


Ada Lovelace, painted in 1832

In the field of astronomy, cosmology and astrophysics, the foundations of our ability to measure the universe were laid by women – the Harvard Computers who were not even allowed to operate the telescopes. Prominent cosomologists such as Jo Dunkley continue their work today, including estimating the mass of the universe and studying distant galaxies.

Why is it, with this rich history and vibrant present of women in STEM, that so few girls go on to study Physics or Computing at A-level in this country? I don’t know, but I hope with examples like Lovelace, Leavitt, Black, Dunkley and Athene Donald to follow, we will see the trend reverse and true gender equality achieved.


















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