Parents are the key to bringing women into STEM courses

Research last year by Youth Insight found that parents have the most influence on young Australians’ subject selection at 54 per cent, with friends second at 30 per cent and teachers third at 24 per cent.

The below article appeared in The Australia on the 21 January 2020.

By Andrew Smith

In Australia, women are under-represented in nearly all parts of the science, technology, engineering and maths workforce.

Just 16 per cent of the STEM skilled workforce are women, with engineering seeing the lowest proportion of women at 12.4 per cent.

The economic case for bridging the STEM gender gap is compelling. In its 2019 Women in STEM Decadal Plan, the Australian Academy of Science estimates that shifting 1 per cent of Australia’s workforce into STEM jobs would add $57.4bn to Australia’s gross domestic product across 20 years, while the World Economic Forum estimates that closing the gender gap in economic participation by 25 per cent could add as much as $US5.3 trillion ($7.7 trillion) to global gross domestic product by 2025.

Differences in interest and confidence in STEM appear early, with twice as many male students in Australian schools aspiring to STEM-related careers as female students. Those differences carry on into tertiary data, where completion of STEM education is far lower among women, at 20.8 per cent, than men, at 79.2 per cent.

If we are to change the make-up of the STEM workforce in Australia and encourage more women to pursue STEM careers, then we need to bust the myths and unconscious bias that are keeping girls from exploring early interests in STEM.

In 2018, Microsoft surveyed more than 6000 girls in its Closing the STEM Gap study. The findings were instructive: of girls polled, 72 per cent said it was important for them to have jobs that directly helped the world, and 91 per cent described themselves as creative. Incredibly, however, only 37 per cent said they thought STEM jobs could be creative or help the world.

That STEM disciplines have helped improve the world in which we live is broadly well understood. But the overwhelming link between STEM discovery and creativity is not so well appreciated and often understated.

Too often, students are making subject choices based on a binary assumption that humanities are creative while STEM subjects are not. We need to realign those inherent interests in creativity and social good with a better understanding of how STEM careers can put those values into practice.

As Marguerite Evans-Galea, co-founder and chief executive of Women in STEMM (medicine’s the add-on), reminds us: “Every single discipline in STEM has a creative element to it. Idea generation, knowledge exchange, growth mindsets and problem solving, successful translation and innovation all require innovative thinking.”

Many great STEM discoveries have combined creativity and social purpose. Radia Perlman, often referred to as the “mother of the internet”, is renowned as a wildly creative thinker who developed a child-friendly programming language used by children as young as three years old. That creativity was put to purpose when, as a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Perlman developed an algorithm that made today’s internet possible.

Last year, the Australian government developed the Girls in STEM toolkit, a website with research-backed resources to inspire and inform girls, their schools, teachers and families about the opportunities to study and pursue a career in STEM fields.

Alongside various resources, case studies, activities and tools for learners, GIST seeks to bust some of the common myths that are stifling girls’ interest in STEM, and tackle some of the social or psychological barriers to girls pursuing STEM careers.

One of these is imposter syndrome, the psychological phen­om­enon, more common among women in STEM than in other fields, that sees 70 per cent of people feel insecure and unworthy of their accomplishments.

Another is unconscious bias in the classroom: those quick judgments influenced by our background, cultural environment or personal experiences. It is unconscious bias at work, for example, when a group of nine-year-old students is asked to draw a scientist and two-thirds of them draw a man in a lab coat.

Overcoming these social and psychological barriers is fundamental to increasing participation among girls and women in STEM at school, university and the workplace. It is difficult to aspire to what you cannot see, so modelling and celebrating the diversity of female achievement in STEM is important.

But the key influences of girls’ decisions about subject selection and career choice are at home.

Research last year by Youth Insight found that parents have the most influence on young Australians’ subject selection at 54 per cent, with friends second at 30 per cent and teachers third at 24 per cent. Those findings mirror global research by UNESCO that also shows girls’ attitudes to STEM are most strongly influenced by their immediate family, especially parents.

Providing better resources for parents to explore and discuss STEM careers with their daughters is key.

The more we can do at home to help our daughters connect the dots between creativity and social purpose, and the myriad opportunities to apply those values and attributes in STEM fields, the better our chances of recapturing the imagination of girls and young women and, in turn, creating a better world through STEM.

Andrew Smith is chief executive of Education Services Australia. He started his career teaching secondary school maths, science and physical education.