Stop thinking it’s cool to say you don’t understand science

Professor Dame Carol Black, Principal of Newnham College Cambridge

Some three years ago a colleague and I were discussing the lack of women in mathematics and science.  I decided to survey junior members of my all-female college, Newnham Cambridge, on how they had chosen their subjects at A-level and beyond.

The survey highlighted the following reasons for not doing science or maths:   not being exposed to these subjects at school; being discouraged from studying them;  lack of appropriate careers advice;  and the subjects being seen as ‘men’s’ and/or too hard!

Dame Athene Donald, writing in The Times of 4 September 2015 said that peer pressure at school is part of the problem – half of mixed-sex schools have no girls studying physics at A-level.   The stereotyping may start earlier – the Guardian Education recently reported a US study that found that parents and teachers attribute good maths grades to hard work for girls but natural ability for boys.

Low female numbers studying STEM subjects is said to be a major bottleneck in getting women into entrepreneurship in digital technology – which is undoubtedly cool – and when women do become entrepreneurs and lead such companies they do rather better than men.   We need to change our culture –  computer coding should be thought cool for girls as well as boys.

Women need technical role models; and other things that could help are gender-neutral toys, and schools that encourage science study for all their students.

Above all, let us no longer people have people saying that it is OK or cool or a matter of pride – for women or men – to be bad at maths or science.

 Professor Dame Carol Black DBE, FRCP, FMedSci is Principal of Newnham College Cambridge and Expert Adviser on Health and Work to NHS England and Public Health England. She chairs the Board of Think Ahead, the Government’s new fast-stream training programme for Mental Health Social Workers, and the RSSB’s Health and Wellbeing Policy Group. She is a member of the Welsh Government’s Parliamentary Review of Health and Social Care in Wales and Bevan Commission on health in Wales, the board of UK Active,  Rand Europe’s Council of Advisers, PwC’s Health Industries Oversight Board, and the Advisory Board of Step up to Serve.   

Professor Black is a past-President of the Royal College of Physicians, the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, the British Lung Foundation, and past-Chair of the Nuffield Trust for health policy. The Centre she established at the Royal Free Hospital in London is internationally renowned for research and treatment of connective tissue diseases such as scleroderma. She is a Trustee of the National Portrait Gallery, of the Work Foundation, and of Uppingham School.  

In February 2016 Dame Carol enjoyed the experience of being interviewed on BBC Radio’s Desert Island Discs. 

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