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  • Ann Swift

Low level take up of STEM subjects at school amongst girls is a persistent problem

I recently examined Ireland's national data on STEM take up by girls at school, as part of a wider client project. The statistics may not surprise you - it is well known that, for most STEM subjects, take up is much lower amongst girls than boys. But, looking back over 6 years of data, I was particularly struck by how little things have changed. Given the large amount of government funding dedicated to this issue in recent times, not to mention additional funding coming from business or philanthropic sources, it is disappointing to see how little impact has been made.

The visualisation below shows the proportion of girls taking STEM subjects at Leaving Certificate, for the 6 years from 2017-2022. On the plus side, in almost all cases the trend is upwards. However, only in Chemistry and Design and Communications has the proportion of girls increased by more than 4%. Take up of Physics, and of the subject of 'Physics and Chemistry', have hardly changed in 6 years.

Of course, not all subjects are gendered. And the balance is not always in favour of boys - take up of Biology and Chemistry at Leaving Certificate is much greater amongst girls, and the gap here is widening.

In March of this year, the Department of Education’s Gender Balance in STEM Advisory Group published its recommendations. It identified four areas for action, including a focus on the early years, and the need for 'a societal and cultural shift to address current barriers to gender balance in STEM'. Putting a spotlight on earlier age groups relates well to the emerging evidence, which points to perceptions of STEM and related career aspirations being formed at an early age – as early as 7 in some (mainly UK) studies (Archer et al., 2012; Murphy & Beggs, 2003; Sheldrake, 2018). However, it is a pity that data from Ireland's fantastic Growing Up in Ireland study - which contains a considerable amount of data about the take up of subjects at Junior and Leaving Cert - has not been put to greater use in exploring the dynamics behind STEM take up in this country. Presentations at recent Growing Up in Ireland conferences (Lynch, Haynes, & O’Donoghue (2020); Hannan & Smyth (2020)) have hinted at the kind of findings this data might yield - let's hope this resource can be better exploited in future to manage this 'sticky' policy problem.

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