The number of women in STEM is of continuing concern for educators and governments internationally. Despite a huge amount of research and high exposure campaigns, a disparity still exists between men and women in STEM fields.
The Stats on STEM
In the US, it is estimated that the percentage of women working in computing, engineering, and advanced manufacturing has seen no growth from 2001 to 2014. In fact, two of these sectors actually saw the number of female workers fall by 1 percent over this period. Considering women make up 47 percent of the overall workforce, these figures are alarmingly low.
Even when taking into account all STEM occupations, including physical and life sciences where representation is higher, women still only made up 24 percent of the core workforce in 2015. But why does all this matter? What’s so great about STEM jobs anyway?
Firstly, women in STEM enjoy a 35 percent premium on earnings compared with their non-STEM counterparts, so increasing representation in these fields is key to improving wage equality in the labor market. Additionally, STEM jobs are projected to grow at nearly double the rate of non-STEM and enjoy half the unemployment rate. Therefore, they provide much better future employment prospects in a time where many jobs face the threat of automation.
So, if STEM occupations pay so well and offer greater job security, why aren’t more women entering them? The answer to this question is a complex one and the topic of much debate and ongoing research.
The Aptitude Argument
Probably the most extensive evidence that refutes this theory comes from a research program carried out by the OECD called the Program for International Students Assessment (PISA). This extensive survey has been assessing the science, math, and reading ability of 15-year-olds in a total of 72 countries around the world since 2000.
The most recent PISA survey in 2015 found little difference in science performance between boys and girls. On average, boys outperformed girls by just 1 percent and scored higher in 24 of the countries assessed. However, in 22 countries, girls actually outperformed boys!
When it comes to math, the PISA survey found, on average, boys outperformed girls in all countries tested. However, this was only by 2 percent and certainly does not explain the huge shortage of women in STEM careers. Furthermore, a meta-analysis summarizing data from 242 studies on math performance in the US found no significant difference between genders. Many other studies have shown similar results.
If research shows there is little difference in science and math ability levels between boys and girls, there must be other factors at play here.
The Role of Gender Stereotypes
Despite huge progress in recent years, gender stereotypes in society are still alive and strong. We’ve all experienced it at some point. Dolls for girls and building blocks for boys. Pink is a girl’s color ,and blue is a boy’s color. While this may seem harmless, it would appear we are only just beginning to understand the true impact, especially when it comes to child development and education.
Gender stereotypes are often set in early, with girls thinking math and science are ‘boy’s subjects’ as early as second grade. These ideas continue to grow, influencing everything from test scores to career choices. So, rather than a lack of ability, it is the belief that these subjects are not for girls that results in fewer women pursuing STEM subjects.
This belief is so powerful that even in Sweden, one of the most gender-neutral countries in the world, a shortage of women in STEM still exists. Researchers found this was mostly due to girls’ low self-efficacy rating for STEM subjects which deters them from studying them.
What Can Educators Do?
The lack of women in STEM is clearly a complex issue, and we have barely even scratched the surface. That said, there are several simple solutions that educators can implement to improve the learning environment for girls and ensure equal opportunities for all.
- Reassurance – Fascinatingly, research has found that when girls were told they were just as capable of achieving good math grades as boys, differences in scores practically disappeared. This is linked to a phenomenon known as “stereotype threat” whereby anxieties about conforming to stereotypes result in students performing poorly in tests. Simply reassuring girls that they are just as capable can help to alleviate this, but educating students about stereotype threat has also proven to be useful in overcoming it.
- Role Models – When it comes to encouraging girls to pursue STEM careers, female role models have been shown to be highly influential. There are many ways to introduce girls to inspiring role models, such as bringing in local speakers working in STEM fields or promoting female innovators and tech leaders in class. Role models can also include student mentors, so you could use coding and robotics kits to start a workshop where older girls tutor the younger ones.
- Reduce Stereotype Bias – Even if you might not think it, there is a good chance you hold some kind of implicit bias about gender, sexuality, age, or race. This doesn’t make you a bad person! Our brains are hardwired to make quick decisions, i.e. form stereotypes. What matters are the steps you take to reduce biases that can form as a result. Take the implicit bias test designed by researchers at Harvard to see where your stereotypes lie. Ask yourself how these biases affect how you view, evaluate, or teach students, and then look for ways to make improvements.
The above pointers are just a few simple ways that educators can help foster an environment that stimulates girls to pursue STEM subjects and careers. For more research-backed recommendations, check out this groundbreaking report by the American Association of University Women.
This is a guest blog by William Asbury. William is the founder of STEMToyExpert, an educational resource designed to improve Science, Technology, Engineering and Math learning for all age groups and genders. He is passionate about the positive applications of technology in education and is an advocate for an evidence-based approach to learning. William has devoted much of his work toward researching and promoting equal representation for women and ethnic minorities in STEM.