24th January 2024

STEM research update – Published Literature Review: Engaging girls in mixed group STEM challenges

There continues to be a STEM skills shortage, which the IET estimate costs the UK economy around £1.5bn a year*, and a gender gap, with just 16.5% of engineers being female**. These challenges impact the UK’s prosperity and mean young people are missing out on skilled employment and potentially pioneering new technologies.

Caroline Broadway, Director of Engagement at The Smallpeice Trust comments: “To address the shortage, we need to reach out to all young people and show them the possibilities of a career in engineering, which is the focus of our charitable activities. From a young age, there is a significant difference between the perceptions of engineering between boys and girls. By the time they reach secondary school only 35% of girls think engineering careers fit well with them...Each year Smallpeice delivers STEM Challenge Days in schools to over 40,000 students, reaching around 50% girls. Given the significant differences in perception, and the current gender gap, more needs to be done to reach girls in these mixed-gender environments.”

'STEM for Girls' - A practical research programme

The Smallpeice Trust is grateful to the Thomas Gerald Gray Charitable Trust for providing funding to allow the Trust to do a practical research project on engaging girls in mixed group STEM challenges. This builds on the Trust’s experience and focus on adopting best practices to reach underrepresented groups. Small incremental improvements can have a big impact when delivering at scale.  

'STEM for Girls' is a practical research programme that aims to identify activities and methods of engagement that give girls a more positive view of STEM and their future in it.  The programme consists of two phases:

  • Phase One (complete): a literature review that aims to lay out insights from articles, reports, and academic journals and make recommendations based on those insights to enhance STEM activities to better engage girls and encourage them to consider engineering as a career.
  • Phase Two (underway): Using the literature review findings, the primary research will take the findings into the classroom by running adapted STEM challenge days to practically test recommendations, using one of the Trust’s popular STEM days as a control.

Findings from the first phase of the STEM research

The literature review was undertaken from April to August 2023, with five key recommendations that will be tested in the primary research phase:

1. Design resources in a way that will engage girls, especially including colour, facial expressions, and images of girls and women in STEM.
2. Use specific techniques when delivering content to engage and encourage girls, including use of tone and volume.
3. Engage female role models of different ages to bridge the gap between girls and the women they will become.
4. Directly address and challenge gender stereotypes in mixed-group STEM sessions.
5. Emphasise the social applications of STEM and the broadness of STEM careers.

In addition, the review highlights the importance of intervening early in girls’ lives before negative stereotypes and low self-confidence in STEM subjects may become embedded. 

Caroline Broadway concludes: “Collaboration across the STEM skills sector is essential to addressing the need for future diverse talent. We are grateful to the industry bodies, trade associations, specialist charities, corporate, public, and their sector partners who have fed into the project to help shape the primary phase of the research...testing the findings from the literature review in schools using our STEM challenge format will allow us to create practical recommendations on best practice for development and delivery of these activities. We continue to focus on reaching all young people, encouraging them to continue with STEM subjects and inspiring them to consider a career in engineering.”

To request a copy of the literature review please email


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