Equity, Diversity and Inclusion: ASPIRES

A longitudinal survey of young people in the UK has found that girls, working-class and minority ethnic students feel they have to work harder to be seen as ‘authentic’ science students.

ASPIRES is a long-term project investigating the aspirations of young people in the UK, especially with respect to careers in science. The first two phases followed students between the ages of 10 and 19. As the project enters its third phase – which involves tracking young people up to the age of 23 – its director, Louise Archer from the Institute of Education at University College London, discusses how gender, socioeconomic status and ethnicity influence young people's perceptions of science.

Image credit: ASPIRES research, UCL Institute of Education

Where did the idea for the ASPIRES research project come from?

Our main motivation was to understand what influences young people from different backgrounds to study science once it is no longer compulsory (after 16 in the UK) and to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). To investigate this, we carried out repeated in-depth interviews from age 10 to 21 with 50 young people and their parents from across the UK; we also performed large-scale surveys which, to date, includes responses from over 40,000 students.

How would you summarise the main findings of the project thus far?

We found that, contrary to popular perception, low science aspirations are not due to a of interest in science or family support, or even negative views about scientists. Rather, it depends on whether students see themselves as being ‘science-y’ or not. We found that male middle-class students whose family members had a science background were more likely to feel and be recognised by others as ‘science-y’. The first two phases of the study (which followed students between the ages of 10 and 14, and then between the ages of 14 and 19) revealed that these factors influenced who aspired to pursue science even at primary school, and were exacerbated further as students progressed through secondary school. Our results showed that by the age of 17, socially advantaged students were 2.5 times more likely to aspire to be a scientist than students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. And we found that girls and students from less advantaged backgrounds were less likely to feel that they were good at science, and often reported finding the subject difficult.

Why do you think girls feel and are perceived as being less ‘science-y’ than boys?

We found that how science is represented through education, the media and in everyday life, can be very influential in shaping whether young people consider themselves ‘suited’ to science. For a long time, science has been associated with ‘cleverness’, and as being a career for white, middle-class men. But this is not just a perception perpetuated by the media: we found this idea of science being ‘masculine’ was reinforced in lots of ways during young people’s education. For example, some young women disclosed during interviews that teachers had said they need a ‘boy brain’ in order to study maths and physics. This has also been found in other studies in the US. A number of girls also reported that they had experienced sexism from their male peers during science lessons.

Where do you think this notion of science being masculine or only for those who are ‘clever’ comes from?

We believe that science has a vested interest in perpetuating its association with ‘masculinity’ or ‘cleverness’ to sustain its high status and its elitism. This perception of science means that girls, working-class and minority ethnic children often feel that they have to work extra hard to be seen as ‘authentic’ science students. We found examples of high-achieving students, particularly young women, feeling as if they were not ‘clever enough’ to continue with science – particularly physics, which is the subject most strongly aligned with cleverness and masculinity. Our study showed that over time many young women who continued with physics progressively ‘downplayed’ their femininity in order to fit in with the masculine image and culture of the subject.

Were there any results that surprised you?

I think we were surprised by how stable young people’s career goals were, with most students’ job aspirations remaining within the same broad areas (e.g. ‘arts-related’ aspirations) between the ages of 10 to 18. We were also struck by how difficult the education system in the UK makes it for students to continue with science. Often young people’s aspirations were not the main issue, but the way science was taught and examined either stopped them from continuing or was putting them off and making them feel that this field was not a viable route for them. For example, Black students expressed a higher interest in science than white students, but this did not translate into more Black students continuing to study science post-16 once it is no longer compulsory, or entering the scientific workforce.

Why do you think this is?

It is not that Black students have lower aspirations to pursue science careers, as is often assumed by policy initiatives. Instead, we found that they are often put off and made to feel excluded from science. We believe this arises from structural racism and experiences of overt racism and microaggressions, which we refer to as the ‘science debt’ that is owed to these students by society. We see this as a great injustice that needs to be taken more seriously and looked into further.

In your opinion, what could people working in science do to encourage more young people from underrepresented backgrounds to pursue a career in STEM?

Rather than trying to make young people want to aspire to work in science, we need to focus on fixing the things that are currently keeping out so many of them. My first recommendation for those who are interested in this area would be to use our various resources in the ASPIRES 2 report, which will help them understand the issues and adopt what we call a ‘social justice mindset’, as explained in our new short animation. We also recommend using the ‘Science Capital Teaching Approach’, which provides practical ideas on how to engage more equitably with young people without reproducing narrow, elitist ideas about what science is and who it is for.

Do you think your findings also apply to students entering higher education and later career stages of academia?

This is what we are looking at in the third phase of the study, ASPIRES 3. We think that this association of science with cleverness and masculinity will likely persist into higher education, as existing statistics show that issues of diversity and representation in science only get worse the further along the ‘pipeline’ you progress.

Can you tell me a little bit more about the third phase of the project?

We just released the first report from ASPIRES 3, which includes interviews with 48 young people during the COVID-19 lockdown, who have been part of the study for over ten years. The report highlights how the higher education and employment opportunities of young people have been impacted by this experience, and sets out recommendations on how institutes can best support this generation of students. We are also getting ready to conduct the next survey with the same cohort in early 2021, and hope to report more findings from summer 2021. It’s a big study and there are lots of angles and lines of research that we’ll be able to dig into. To find out more about our latest findings, you can join our dissemination list by emailing aspires@ucl.ac.uk

Louise Archer was interviewed by Julia Deathridge, Associate Features Editor, eLife.