Associate Professor in Science Education at Deakin University, Linda Hobbs, discusses the underrepresentation of girls in STEM, highlighting some of the most prevalent challenges and what we can do to help overcome them.
Some time ago I spoke to a teacher who brought his Year 9 and 10 elective flight class from his rural school to my university for some engineering activities. There was one girl in a class of 16. On querying this poor female representation in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subject, the teacher said that girls sign up in droves to a girls-only woodwork class. So, what does this say about how we can encourage girls to follow STEM careers?
STEM is and will be increasingly important to the lives and work of today’s young people.However, STEM subjects at school remain less attractive than other options, and pathways into tertiary STEM degrees are resulting in fewer graduates heading into STEM careers. While teachers have a desire to positively influence their students, there are factors within and outside of school that influence girls’ orientation towards STEM and whether they choose to participate or not.
But if participation is about choice, then what are the barriers to choice? The world of STEM is not like that girls’ woodwork class. It is more like that flight class, where there might be equal choice for girls and boys to participate, but girls just choose not to. But is there equal choice? What role does unconscious bias play? In a study of Year 10 girls’ perceptions of engineers in 2003 (Darby, Hall, Dowling and Kentish, ‘Perceptions of engineering from female secondary college students in regional Victoria’), I found that the barriers to participation in STEM are the same today: That is, when there is a lack of knowledge, and attractive and attainable role models, girls tend to rely on society’s expectations and images of STEM-related careers as traditionally male. This results in a lack of interest in the perceived image. They therefore choose not to participate.
I asked my 11-year-old daughter why she thought girls did not want to do that flight class, but would sign up to a girls’ woodwork class. Her experience at 11 is that boys can make girls feel uncomfortable. Also that boys can be overly critical of the girls when it is a typical ‘boy’ thing to do.
So what does this say about how to create an environment and society where unconscious bias is removed from the career choices of girls and women? The girls’ woodwork class is one step. But removing males from traditional male roles just leaves women, which is not the aim either. Getting to 50:50 is therefore a significant challenge.
The 2017 report ‘Girls’ Future – Our Future: The Invergowrie Foundation STEM Report’ provides important commentary not just on the issues influencing women in STEM; but also how as enablers we can influence the culture within which young girls and women can be raised. The critical role of schools and teachers is fore fronted, as is the importance of these enablers working with industry, businesses and those responsible for creating, imagining, representing and doing. The challenge is to create successful learning experiences where girls can be exposed to a spectrum of real possibilities for their futures.
Opening up choice for young people, especially girls, means owning up to the challenges and looking for solutions. Here are some:
Challenge 1: There is a disproportionate representation of females in STEM, limiting diversity in the workplace.
Solution: Continue to enable girls to make balanced and informed choices about their futures. Embracing the language of diversity in the workplace and classroom enables more creative solutions and better conditions for both males and females.
Challenge 2: Outdated and misinformed career advice can lead girls astray, limiting their future career choices and participation in a STEM-rich society.
Solution: De-mystify ‘STEM jobs’ for students, teachers and parents through an education campaign in order to focus advisors, young people and their families on possible jobs of the future and the associated subject choices in high school. Increase visibility of the STEM sector so that young people are aware of new and possible futures.
Challenge 3: The wrong teachers may be teaching STEM subjects in secondary schools, limiting exposure to inspiring STEM-experienced teachers. While Australian teachers are highly qualified, there are no restrictions on which subjects they will be required to teach. A shortage of teachers with a background in STEM means we have relatively high levels of out-of-field teaching in Chemistry, Physics and Mathematics.
Solution: Attract more Mathematics and Science teachers, and address systemic pressures (shortage of teachers, unequal distribution of teachers) that result in the need for out-of-field teaching. More resources and due consideration needs to be given to supporting existing teachers to re-specialise.
Challenge 4: Teachers face challenges in creating and implementing contemporary STEM curriculum, leading to a tendency to maintain the status quo of traditional siloed approaches to teaching Mathematics, Science and Technology.
Solution: Support teacher and school change through targeted professional learning and time for curriculum renewal. Little evidence is currently available of the longitudinal effects of one-off events nor the effects of the accumulation of experiences. Indications from ‘Girls’ Future – Our Future’, however, suggest that immersion in multiple events may have the greatest impact on identity development. Therefore, a regional approach to STEM renewal with regular STEM immersion activities and events stands to have the greatest impact on normalising STEM as a valued, achievable and socially acceptable/supported career option for young people.
Challenge 5: Unattractive STEM curriculum for girls, leading to poor engagement at school.
Solution: Consider pedagogies that are inclusive of all learning styles in Science and Mathematics subjects so as not to reinforce gender stereotypes. A move towards more inclusive pedagogies is likely to cater for the range of interests in the classroom, including girls and boys. It is important to not make assumptions about what girls want. Girls’ interests, learning styles and preferred ways of working are diverse: There’s not one thing called a girl, there are a billion, all with different likes and personalities, and so on.
Challenge 6: Unattractive storyline of STEM careers, leading to poor STEM identity development.
Solution: Produce stories about STEM in life and as career pathways to assist with creating positive STEM identities for girls. When STEM role models are lacking in a girl’s life, effort needs to be made beyond simple profiling of individual ‘superstars’ of STEM. Programs that bring girls together with people from industry and STEM professions potentially have greater impact.
In conclusion, STEM will be a critical part of the future of our young people. Attending to these key challenges will be critical to ensure that young people have the benefits of full participation in this future workforce. The first step is to be aware of biases that can exclude choice from girls, the next step is to be proactive in enabling and opening up choice.
Education Services Australia has now developed the Girls in STEM Toolkit or GiST, which is designed to encourage girls to study and pursue careers in STEM. To read more about this innovative new suite of resources, please click here.