Systemic changes needed to right STEM gender imbalances



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There has been this long debate about science and mathematics and participation rates of boys and girls, but the existing bias for more boys than girls that study physics and advanced mathematics has become more rather than less pronounced over time,” NSW Department of Education Secretary, Mark Scott AO has told a CEDA audience in Sydney.

Speaking at the Girls, education and opportunity event, Mr Scott gave his perspective on the NSW Government’s strategies to promote the education of girls and those with diverse cultural backgrounds to participate more fully in the Australian economy.

Highlighting the issue, Mr Scott said, “At a global level, the education of women is seen as a key economic driver for national growth and national prosperity.

“Better educated women, according to the World Bank, are healthier, earn higher incomes, they have fewer children, they marry later, they enable better healthcare and education for their children – if they have them, and educating a woman educates a nation and it helps lift households, it helps lift communities, it helps life nations out of poverty.”

Or, as one of the other event’s speakers, Circus Oz Chair and Goodstart Early Learning Deputy Chair, Wendy McCarthy AO put it, “Education is the only thing that can take you out of poverty, for the most part. It’s also one of the few things that no one can take away from you – once you’ve got it, it’s yours, to do with as you wish. It enables you to play the game.”

And, as Ms McCarthy highlighted, when women are in poverty, it is a continual cycle. “Seventy per cent of the world’s poor are female, and their children go with them – they don’t stay with their fathers. Therefore, they are too inheriting a life of poverty and no education.”

The speakers discussed that while women are participating equally in numbers at university to their male counterparts, there are sectors still markedly absent with women – and these sectors are the ones pegged to hold the most employment opportunities as well as growth for the Australian economy in general.

Final speaker Macquarie University Pro Vice-Chancellor, Learning and Teaching, Professor Sherman Young described this as a number of factors “conspiring against women, including, social, cultural, economic expectations, unconscious biases, inherent institutional structures”.
While Australia has sustained a quarter of a century of uninterrupted growth, Mr Scott said the resources boom has helped the country coast through this growth period, but looking to Australia’s future, Australia’s educated work force will be the country’s economic driver.

He said that while there is uncertainty in what these future jobs will look like, they will undoubtedly have a STEM focus.

“A PwC report said 75 per cent of the fastest growing occupations now require stem skills of some sort. The challenge, as they reported, is that only 60 per cent of students are pursuing skills in these sectors,” Mr Scott said.

However, the problem is exacerbated for female students.

“The current state of play is disturbing and challenging, especially when we put a gender filter on it. Sixteen per cent of STEM qualified people in Australia are female,” Mr Scott said.

“Of those qualified people, only 12 per cent of women in STEM were earning in the top income bracket of over $104,000 per year, compared with 32 per cent of STEM qualified men.”

He said the declining trend of Year 12 students taking STEM subjects is likely due to a “complex combination of factors”, which includes removing university entrance prerequisites and broadening curriculum offerings, which allows people to pursue their area of interest more broadly than was once the case.

However, he said the most important factor was likely “student self-perception of ability and difficulty”.

He said that research indicates that it’s perception about strength in mathematics that is the key driver to subject selection.

“Which is a key step to a STEM job, mathematics is a critical filter to participation and opportunity to high status and high salary fields. It’s a gendered issue. Girls tend to report being less interested in mathematics and to consider themselves less able, despite equivalent achievement with boys,” Mr Scott said.

“The research is quite clear that you can have similar educational outcomes, but the girls’ perception of their ability to go on and to have success in mathematics is lower. This self-perception translates into patterns of gender participation that advantage boys’ achievement prospects despite there being no corresponding achievement differences.

“This is a challenge that goes way beyond, I think, a challenge for our teachers and our educators,” he said.

Mr Scott said that in order to overcome this barrier, Australia needs to ensure young women have the confidence and opportunity to engage in the subjects that are going to be key for their success. A part of this, he said, was to tackle the stereotype that STEM is only for “geeks or geniuses, or most damaging of all – that it’s not for girls”, and offer genuine role models for women.

Speaking on the issue, Professor Young said, “Despite huge efforts to shift the gender balance in STEM classes, the shift has been incremental. While we have been doing a lot, it isn’t working.

“Maybe, just maybe, the root cause of the gender imbalance is fundamental and structural, and the fiddling around the edges of our current system is not going to get the results that we need.

“Maybe, we need a systemic change.”

Professor Young highlighted how the education system was developed at a very different point in Australia’s history, during the Industrial Revolution, and bears many similarities to the industrial process.

“The modern education system came out of the enlightenment period – it privileged a particular type of academic knowledge, knowledge designed to grapple with the economic imperatives of the industrial revolution, and it’s modelled on industrial process,” he said.

“It privileges particular types of academic knowledge, i.e. to write a 5000-word essay, or to recall info in an exam room – those activities really belong to a different age.”

He argued that education needs to represent today’s modern work force more accurately, encouraging collaboration, innovation and active learning.

“In what reality are you expected to complete a project by sitting in your cubicle, never talking to anyone, and relying only on your memory?” he asked.

Additionally, he proposed that reframing technical and STEM learning in a more attractive way – highlighting the creative aspects of it, would also appeal more to women, citing the statistics that 38 per cent of engineers are women – a much higher percentage than the 16 per cent in other STEM pathways – despite requiring the same mathematical and analytical tools. He argued this was because women could see a practical and creative end to the degree.

Ms McCarthy proposed a number of solutions that would better women in the education system, saying first and foremost education should put the child at the centre of the system.

Additionally, she believed public schools should be better funded.

“State education systems should not be the places that are safety nets for children that cannot afford private schools. And if we aren’t careful, despite the numbers in the system, that’s how it’s going,” she said.

“It was never envisaged that we would be a nation where the independent school system would be rivalling the state school system for investment and number of students.

“The countries in the world with the greatest education system in gender fairness and STEM equality, are still the countries whose first educational choice is the state funded education system. And that’s where it should be.”

Additionally, she believed giving educators a better wage and more prestige would attract higher quality educators, stating “instead of bagging our teachers, we must realise our teachers spend more time with the children than our parents”.


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