Improving gender balance through a Combined STEM degree

McPherson, Elaine; Clarke, Anactoria; Gallen, Anne-Marie; Keys, Mary and Wolf, Petra (2022). Improving gender balance through a Combined STEM degree. In: 15th Annual International Conference of Education, Research and Innovation, 7-9 Nov 2022, Seville, Spain.


UK universities have struggled to recruit women to certain subjects within science, technology/computing, engineering and maths (STEM) despite best efforts to address this gender imbalance. In 2017, the Open University (a distance learning university) introduced a ‘Combined STEM’ degree alongside its single and joint honours degrees in STEM. The proportion of women registering on this combined degree is comparatively higher than expected; notably in those disciplines where the proportion of women is typically lowest (for example, engineering and computing modules).
The Combined STEM degree offers a wide choice within STEM modules with the option for students to study up to a third of their credits in non-STEM modules. Whilst recommended routes through the degree are offered, students are free to choose their own path. Here we present the results of a study that aimed to gain a better understanding of why the proportion of women is higher on the Combined STEM degree than other STEM-based qualifications.
A survey was carried out amongst students on both the Combined STEM and single honours degrees who had recently entered the university via the STEM Access route or Stage 1 STEM modules. The survey explored students’ qualification intentions and how they made those choices. Semi-structured interviews followed with women enrolled on different qualifications, which allowed a deeper exploration of survey responses and motivations around qualification choice.
Following a thematic analysis of survey responses, the motivations identified included desire for choice, interest in the subject(s), career/employer motivation, lack of confidence, influence of others (family/friends/other students) and identity. Some of these themes were revisited by the interviewees who discussed valuing the ability to combine more than one subject, for personal interest or career reasons and the ability to change subject/ emphasis without changing qualification should they encounter difficulties or if their interests/career goals change. However, they also noted difficulty in articulating the concept of a ‘Combined STEM’ degree to others.
This study indicates that perceived ‘choice’ and ‘flexibility’ are particularly valued by women entering STEM subjects. Placing more emphasis on these aspects during qualification design and in descriptors may be important to encourage engagement of women in STEM subjects where they are traditionally underrepresented.

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