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What’s holding females back from participating in STEM?

Women and girls are less likely to participate in STEM areas in school, university and careers. Dr Sue Thomson discusses why in her latest column for Teacher.

While the 20th century saw women stride ahead in their participation in education and the workforce, there are still gender differences apparent in some areas of education. In particular, females do not enrol in higher mathematics, science, or ICT, or move into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers to the same extent as males. We rightly celebrate great achievements for women in science, such as the Nobel Prizes awarded in Physics to Donna Strickland and in Chemistry to Frances Arnold this year, but why are these achievements such a rarity?  

Perhaps it’s because women are still vastly underrepresented in many of the sciences at tertiary level. The OECD reported that in 2012 only 14 per cent of young women entering university for the first time chose science-related fields compared to 39 per cent of young men and, within these science-related fields, enrolments are quite skewed, reflecting long-held beliefs about ability.

This article addresses three broad areas that may hold females back from participation in these subjects in school and in entering STEM careers, providing teachers with the knowledge to address the underlying issues.

Males are better at maths (or science, or ICT) than females

While this is one that has had some traction over the years, it has been widely refuted by research. Data from international studies – Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and International Computer and Information Literacy Study (ICILS) – show varying differences. If mathematical, or scientific, or computer ability were biologically determined, gender differences would be consistent across countries. This is clearly not the case.

Perceived ability – self-confidence and self-efficacy

Gender differences in both self-confidence and self-efficacy have been shown to have a profound effect on attitudes to studying mathematics and science both in secondary school and at tertiary level. Male students show substantially higher levels of both self-confidence and self-efficacy than female students. Both are necessary in order to pursue more challenging levels of mathematics or science.

Cultural beliefs

There are many pervasive cultural beliefs about STEM subjects – particularly mathematics, the ‘hard sciences’ such as physics, and IT – being male domains. Indeed, most of the people working in these areas are male. But this is self-perpetuating, and needs to be challenged by parents as well as teachers. Females, as well as males, need to be taught, by teachers and parents, that working in a STEM field is not necessarily the domain of a brilliant few, but that most scientists and mathematicians and IT professionals are simply hard-working people, both male and female. ■

Read the full article:
This is an extracted version of a longer article written by Sue Thomson for Teacher. Read the full article, ‘STEM: What’s holding females back?’, here: https://www.teachermagazine.com.au/columnists/sue-thomson/stem-whats-holding-females-back.

RD

About the author

Dr Sue Thomson is the Deputy CEO (Research) at ACER, as well as the Head of Educational Monitoring and Research and the Director of ACER's Australian Surveys research program. 

More [rd] articles by Sue Thomson

View selected works of Sue Thomson

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