Schools

Challenges and opportunities in STEM education

Overview

Often girls do not receive equal opportunities to pursue STEM pathways.

From the primary years, girls are not identifying with STEM, seeing themselves as ‘no good’ at it, and actively opting out of STEM learning. In secondary school, these experiences are often consolidated, with the result that girls don’t pursue STEM pathways to VET or university, and are under-represented in STEM careers (Office of the Chief Scientist, 2016). 

Teachers and school leaders, along with parents, are the most significant influencers when it comes to enthusing girls about their STEM potential (Microsoft, 2018). 

This section provides background on the current STEM environment for girls at school, in further studies, and in the workplace. It gives teachers and school leaders the tools to evaluate and improve gender equality in STEM at their school. It also arms schools to engage the community and families and bring STEM opportunities to the fore for all students.

STEM jobs are on the rise and STEM skills are highly valued by employers (Foundation for Young Australians, 2017).

Videos about building STEM capital and engaging girls in STEM

Consider exploring these infographics and videos at a staff or team meeting, and use the reflection questions below to prompt discussion.

Reflection

  • What surprised you about this infographic/video?
  • How do you think your students’ experiences compare?
  • If you were to design a questionnaire and collect data on your students, what questions would you ask?
  • What do you think causes some of the patterns that are reflected in the infographics?

Stereotyping

A stereotype is a widely held, often unconscious, belief or generalisation about the behaviours, characteristics and roles performed by a particular group. We all use stereotypes to make quick decisions, but they can lead to inaccurate and unfair judgements.

Gender stereotypes can hold girls back from pursing STEM subjects at school, or a career in STEM. Gender stereotypes come from lots of places – the media, family, friends, teachers, schools, textbooks and other learning resources. Continued exposure to gender stereotypes affects how girls view themselves, their wellbeing, their attitudes to relationships, and the way they participate in school and work.

A large-scale US study found that the gender gap in science and maths achievement in a country is significantly correlated with implicit gender-science stereotypes in that country (Nosek et al, 2009).

Gender stereotypes consistently tell girls that women do not belong in STEM, that girls do not have natural talent in STEM, and that STEM pathways are not in accordance with how girls see themselves; that is STEM is not creative, collaborative nor for the social good. These stereotypes negatively affect girls’ beliefs about their own capacity, and also influence teachers’ and families’ expectations and aspirations for girls in STEM.

International tests show that overall internationally, boys and girls show no difference in achievement in maths, and in science, girls achieve higher scores than boys (Thomson, Wernert, O'Grady & Rodrigues, 2016).

Although we may feel confident that we do not perpetuate gender stereotypes in our classrooms, we also need to be aware of the role that unconscious bias plays in gender stereotyping.

Unconscious bias

Unconscious bias, or implicit bias, refers to the attitudes and reactions that affect our behaviour and understanding on a daily basis, without us necessarily being aware of it. For example, as in the case of gender bias, teachers can hold unconscious assumptions about gender that result in the different treatment of boys and girls in the classroom. It’s important to realise that these assumptions can be in conflict with our conscious beliefs.

A recent Australian study found that teachers tend to teach girls less science content than boys (Newall, Gonsalkorale, Walker, Forbes, Highfield and Sweller, 2018).

These lessons from the UK’s Institute of Physics are great for introducing your students to the concepts of gender stereotyping and unconscious bias.

Unconscious bias cannot be easily removed from our thinking, but by recognising its existence and effect, we can consciously change our stereotyping behaviour. There are also a number of ways to actively engage female students in STEM directly and through the support of families and the community.

There is no evidence that boys are naturally better at maths and science than girls (TIMSS, 2011).
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