Gender gap in UK schools means girls’ lack of confidence in maths and science puts them off applying for engineering jobs

I have been living in England for the past decade and this is something I’ve noticed. Girls and women saying they can’t do Maths. And then I see news articles like this popping up every year or so.

I don’t really know the reason behind this. In Singapore, girls do just as well as boys in Maths and Sciences, although there seems to be (anecdotally) a larger percentage of boys in engineering classes at University level. The reason is quite simple : many girls just don’t have an interest in engines and mechanics, whereas boys do because they like to play with cars and stuff when they are young and when they grow older, they like learning about how these things work. I’m sure there is some gender-bias in the way parents raise their children, that influences this. Yes, parents in Asia tend to buy dolls for girls and cars and bikes for boys. Yet that may be because boys have a natural affinity for playing with toy vehicles, I guess. So yeah, I agree maybe in engineering fields, you’re always going to find more boys than girls.

The news report I linked to doesn’t just talk about Engineering though. It also mentions the number of girls in UK applying for Science, Technology and Maths-related fields are significantly lower than boys. Now this is something I think doesn’t sound right. In Singapore, girls tend to do just as well as boys in Sciences and Maths, and the number of girls vs boys in these courses are pretty even. Many of my ex-classmates in fact did very well in their Maths and Sciences, gained degrees in these fields and and pursue good careers in STEM industries today.

When I was a schoolgirl in Singapore, I was always told by teachers and parents that I could do well in any subject if I tried harder, if I practiced more, if I worked harder. This is a very typical Singaporean ethic. Nothing is impossible if you practice and work hard at something. There was no such thing as “girls can’t do Maths”. In fact, in my all-girls secondary school, most of my classmates were strong in Maths and Sciences. Weaker subjects actually tend to be languages and literature and in fact most Singaporeans I know were not great at these although they tend to master English, Mandarin and Malay for instance, to a sufficient standard to be comprehensible to foreigners who were native speakers of those languages.

But then again my parents, despite being pretty traditional and Asian and pretty set in their ways in many aspects, have always raised me to be an independent girl and told me I could become anything I wanted. I could reach for the skies if I wanted. Singapore, like any Asian country, has it’s own sexist aspects. For instance, a girl who wanted to wear short short skirts or reveal cleavage could easily attract stares and comments from males, even male colleagues. Often they would make comments along the lines of “Why are you dressed like this?” or like my Dad says “Be careful, you’ll get raped if you walk around looking like that.” Singaporean men can be really nice and considerate too, in a somewhat protective and traditionally-influenced way, of their women. However they would never accept their own daughters or sisters cannot do Maths or whatever. Singaporean children are always told that they can do anything, be anybody (usually implying “somebody rich and successful and really clever, like a doctor or lawyer”) as long as they worked hard at school.

When I came to England, I was surprised at how men would open doors for women and stuff. This was not something Asian men in Singapore generally do – though I am not saying none of then do! Western men seem more romantic, more passionate. And they don’t go around making comments openly about how girls choose to dress themselves. On the other hand, the kind of sexism I’ve seen here is a different kind. Topless girls on common newspapers did shock me at first when I was new to this country, although I’m glad there’s now a national campaign to get rid of this! Actually what stood out to me was how many girls here didn’t believe they can do well in Maths and Sciences – that those are “boy” subjects. This sort of mentality cannot possibly be genetic, I think. Unless it is racial – unless we’re saying that it’s only applicable to white girls but not to Singaporean girls. Of course I think that is codswallop. I think this perception in society that Maths and Sciences are “boy” subjects has to come from culture. I think it’s something that can definitely be changed.

But of course not everything that can be changed has to change. The Singaporean perception that all children can do well in any school subject as long as they work hard can be damaging even though it can be empowering. Generations of Singaporean kids have excelled at academics because this is the message that’s being fed throughout Singaporean society – “if you work hard in school and get into the best schools and go to the best unis, a life of comfort and wealth awaits.” That has worked out for many many people. For many Singaporeans, going to University happens at all costs. Parents save up thousands of dollars for years so they can pay for their kids to go abroad to other Unis to earn their degrees if their kids aren’t smart enough to get into the Singaporean unis, which tend to only take the brightest of the crop. My own Dad is an example. My brother and sister were not very academic children, but because my Dad never gave up on the Uni dream, funded them through countless private tuition courses to up their grades and then paid for them to go to Uni when they’re of age, they have both earned their qualifications. Many Singaporeans hope their kids land a cushy white collar job when they grow up. Blue collar jobs were seen as the preserve of the lowly-educated, the foreign cheap labour, the kids who did badly at school, the poor, etc.

But what about kids who have real learning difficulties and for whom academics cannot be the way to a career for them? What about those kids whose parents will never earn as much as my Dad did to help them get to Uni? Well in Singapore, they are seen as “ne’er do-wells” when they are young, unless they manage to find a way in adulthood to make a tonne of money. See, money buys respect in many places. Not just in Singapore either, but I digress.

Anyway I guess I am writing this blog post just to express that I feel girls out there should never feel they cannot do Maths and Sciences because somehow they are genetically not made for that because, well, they are girls. I have always told my daughters that they can do whatever subject they want if they ever wish to go to Uni, and because we home educate, I know my girls will not be exposed to 6 hours of cultural conditioning in typical state schools here where they can be subtly-influenced to believe that because they are girls, they “can’t do” Maths or Sciences.

Grammar schools may be different and they may be less negative environments for girls regarding achievement in such subjects and the nature of Grammar school selective criteria mean that when girls do get into such schools, they already possess the ability to do well in many academic subjects, including Maths and Sciences. But since we’ve never really aimed to climb that Grammar school “ladder”, the idea of my kids going to Grammar school is not a realistic point. I’ve never really pushed to get my children into Grammar schools. I just never felt it was the right thing to do. Probably because I myself am a product of a similar system of education in Singapore and know from experience that that environment only really suits a particular type of child (and I wasn’t really it… even though academically I was capable) and I know my kids are not really keen on that sort of environment either. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve told my kids about such schools and always left it to them to decide. I was realistic about it to them. I did tell them if they wanted to be a doctor for instance, that it would probably increase their chances of being selected for entry into medical school if they went to Grammar school instead of home education or going to state school. I know the statistics and I know the success rate for application to med school is heavily skewed towards Grammar school and private school candidates in this country. Hell, most of the Singaporeans I know who got into med school in UK came from the equivalent of Grammar schools in Singapore – the sort of school I got into as a teen.

It is never a level-playing field in higher education. I know that. But unlike my Singaporean parents, I have chosen to give my children the freedom and choices to decide what they wish to do, and not dampen their ambitions, whatever they are, and at the same time, not sugarcoating the reality of the job market either. It is tough out there, and it is debatable whether pushing children to achieve University degrees in “lucrative” careers is the right thing to do especially in these times, when even degree holders struggle to get jobs.

My Dad still thinks it’s better to have a degree than not and he has a point. In Singapore, if you’re looking for a job, that is certainly the case. In fact in Asia, as a rule, degree holders get picked for more jobs than non-degree holders and they are accorded with a bit more respect than non-degree holders (unless you are like a rich tycoon and have no degree, well then… people tend not to argue with that). Education is highly-valued in Asian countries – so highly-valued that it has become a distinguishing aspect of Asian culture wherever Asians are found in the West.

I know in UK that people with non-Chinese backgrounds don’t often place that much importance on higher education, and it’s perfectly possible and actually more common here than in Singapore for non-graduates to hold high positions in companies and government organisations, but I have told my kids – you never know where you may end up living in in future. And if you want to return to Asia for work in future, perhaps it’s best to get a degree to fall back on. In fact, it can be very difficult for them to get work visas in Singapore for instance, if they don’t have at least a degree, unless they have lots and lots of money. So I want them to obtain their required number of GCSEs and preferably A Levels. After that, whatever they choose to do with their qualifcations is up to them. But if they want to go to Asia, best get a degree before going. And my opinion is that we should never discount the possibility of going to Asia – or anywhere else in this world – for work in this globalised job market. Like my grandparents who escaped China to go to Singapore for better job prospects in the early part of the 20th century, and “made it” there; like my husband’s ancestors who first fled Denmark, then fled Holland because of Christian persecutions, and went to South Africa for better prospects and “made it” there, I guess me, my husband and my children will always have that “travelling” gene in us and may never stay put in one place for long.


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