It is well known that women are underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) university courses. In January 2021 STEM Women published an article [1] highlighting inequalities in the uptake of STEM subjects, through a range of statistics:

According to the recent UCAS data provided by HESA, 35% of STEM students in higher education in the UK are women [1].

The amount of female STEM graduates has slowly increased over the years, though at a slow rate [1]

The percentage of female graduates with core STEM degrees is steadily growing, however, the split is still just 26%. This figure is also translated in the female STEM workforce, with women making up only 24% of workers [1]. This shows that work needs to be done to encourage women to both study these subjects, and transition into the workforce.

Mathematics in Education and Industry (MEI)

The MEIA is committed to improving mathematics education through teaching and different strands of activity. They support teachers through a range of professional developments [2].

MEI is an independent charity; any income generated through their work is used to support mathematics education.

Additionally, they are involved in the leadership of two major Department for Education contracts – The Advanced Mathematics Support Programme (AMSP) [3] and the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics Consortium (NCETM) [4].

Part of the work of AMSP focuses on ensuring that girls and young women are active participants in mathematics and that their full potential is realised.

The AMSP work with just over 80% of secondary schools and six form colleges in England, around 2,900 colleges and schools in total. Over 40 area coordinators are working across England and 22 of those coordinators are based in universities.

The UK is an outlier compared to the rest of the world and the AMSP has recognised this. In other countries, all students continue with some form of maths up until the age of 18 but in the UK, students must choose whether they want to continue with maths from the age of 16.

The key aims of the AMSP:

  • Increase participation in AS/A-Level Mathematics and Further Mathematics
  • Improve the quality of maths teaching
  • Increase the number of students studying STEM degrees and apprenticeships

Reasons for Choosing Maths Post-16, according to the AMSP

Through their research, the AMSP has identified 5 main factors that affect students’ intentions to study maths at A-Level.

  • Prior attainment in the subject
  • Enjoyment of the subject
  • Perceived competence at the subject
  • Interest in the subject
  • Awareness of the utility of the subject

Other background factors that play alongside these are gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.

The AMSP explains how gender impacts female students’ decision to continue with maths:

Prior attainment in the subject: Students are more likely to take part in maths A level if their maths grade is higher than their other grades at GCSE. On average girls achieve higher GCSE grades than boys across the board, so they often go with other subjects at A level, especially if their maths grade was slightly lower. Young women’s choice patterns at A-Level reflect the wider pool of opportunities available to them as generally higher achievers.

Enjoyment of the subject: Girls are more likely than boys to give enjoyment of the subject as the reason for choosing STEM subjects. However, girls also report enjoying mathematics slightly less than boys do. They especially dislike physics, comparatively to boys.

Perceived competence at the subject: A student’s sense of self-competence reflects how they feel about their ability in mathematics. Girls from Year 8 onwards consistently underrate their performance in maths. This matters because girls are not experiencing the motivating effect of accurately judging their own performance.

Interest in the subject: Being interested in the subject is more important to girls’ choices at post-16 stages than boys. A recommendation from the AMSP states that tactics to get girls more interested in maths should start at the early secondary school years. There is evidence to suggest that these interventions should even start earlier.

Awareness of the utility of the subject: Students who consider maths less useful are less likely to continue to study it further. This is accentuated for girls. Providing clear messages to students, in particular, girls about the wide range of careers related to maths is essential.

The AMSP also sees that girls are affected by cognitive bias when making decisions on their study subjects. If girls don’t see other people that they identify with (other young women) studying maths, then they are less likely to adopt the subject themselves. External influences from other people, educators and the media can massively impact girls’ participation in STEM.

Additionally, students have tendencies to look inwards and question whether they can see themselves studying STEM and whether they can study maths, feeding into a low self-concept.

Strategies to Tackle Low Self-Concept

Encourage students not to judge their performance against others

Or against their performance in other subjects

Track progress over time

Inspire students to adopt a mindset of continual progress

Effort is the most important factor for success:

Breaking down the myth that you are born good at maths and science

Strategies to Tackle Cognitive Bias

In terms of tackling external influences on girls’ decisions to study STEM, the AMSP recommend:

  • Showing girls, the many ways in which STEM is valuable to students: How can STEM subjects be useful to these students in their everyday lives and how can this be communicated?
  • Demonstrate how STEM makes a positive difference in the world: This motivates students to engage with STEM, it counteracts the stereotype that STEM does not involve working with people as well as highlighting the altruistic purposes of STEM
  • Provide girls with relatable role models: To show them how other women have succeeded in life by choosing STEM subjects

The AMSP provide enrichment events, resources and professional development to students, teachers, and parents. They also work with employers and universities, sharing messages with students about the importance of maths.

[1] STEM Women, 2021. Women in STEM | Percentages of Women in STEM Statistics

[2] Mathematics in Education and Industry (MEI)

[3]The Advanced Mathematics Support Programme (AMSP)

[4]National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics Consortium (NCETM)

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This article explores the aims and strategies of The Advanced Mathematics Support Programme in encouraging more girls to study maths in Post-16 education.

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