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Female scientists don’t actually exist, according to the GCSE science curriculum

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Lauren Geall
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A woman working as a scientist

A new survey by education charity Teach First has revealed that no women are named on the core GCSE science curriculum, and less than 50% of the British public can name a female scientist.

When you think of a scientist, what’s the first name that comes to mind? For many, it’s probably the image of Isaac Newton and his apple or Albert Einstein’s iconic grey hair.

It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that a new survey conducted by education charity Teach First has found that only one in 10 of us would pick a woman when we’re asked to name a scientist. In fact, according to the data, only half (49%) of us can name a female scientist at all.

It’s a shocking statistic to learn, especially when yesterday (11 February) marked the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. This day was designed to recognise the critical role women and girls play in the science and technology industries – intended to break down barriers for future scientists, engineers and thought leaders.

This revelation is not surprising, however, when you look at the grand number of female scientists taught on the UK’s core science GCSE curriculum: zero. This number is particularly frustrating when you remember that women such as Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin and Ada Lovelace made massive breakthroughs in their respective fields. 

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It’s also a more blatant reminder of the battle that female scientists are still fighting to gain recognition for their work, especially in an industry that is still predominantly male. 

According to a 2018 survey by campaign body WISE (Women into Science and Engineering), only 22% of the people working in core STEM occupations are women. Overall, that means that women account for less than a quarter of the people employed in core STEM occupations across the UK.

When female representation in our science textbooks is so poor, should we be shocked that we don’t have many women in STEM-related occupations? There are plenty of female role models out there for young girls interested in science – but when they’re not being put at the forefront of our curriculum, what kind of message is that sending?

“While being stuck on the question of how to get more girls to pursue science, technology, engineering and maths, we’ve overlooked that there are too few women celebrated in these subjects at school for girls to see,” says Shelley Gonsalves, executive director at Teach First. “This matters, because if girls don’t see identifiable role models it’s hard to spark their imaginations to pursue a STEM career in the future.”

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She continues: “This leaves talent unlocked, which exacerbates our country’s STEM skills shortage.”

So next time someone asks you to name a scientist, make sure you remember all the incredible women responsible for some of the amazing inventions and ideas we take for granted today. It’s more important than you think.

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