Women and Girls in STEM
How does your daughter feel about science? Mine loves it but apparently she is in a minority.
A 2016 report by the (Australian) Office of the Chief Scientist, found that only 16 per cent of the 2.3 million STEM-qualified Australians were female, with engineering showing the largest gender gap.
There is certainly hope, though. On Australia Day this year Professor Michelle Yvonne Simmons of the University of NSW was named the Australian of the Year for her ground breaking work in quantum physics.
There are also plenty of examples in Australia of women who are doing outstanding work in their chosen STEM fields such as the Superstars of STEM at Science and Technology Australia. These are 30 women who are doing remarkable things in their areas of expertise.
Despite these encouraging examples of women who are doing brilliant work in their chosen STEM fields, the statistics indicate that girls generally are choosing to opt out of science and maths in their senior years of high school.
The question is - why are girls opting out of STEM education?
A comprehensive OCED study of 510,000 15-year-olds from 65 countries around the world reveals that gender differences in education begin much earlier than previously thought. The researchers found that despite working harder at school and spending more time on homework, young women display much higher anxiety and lack of confidence when it comes to solving mathematical and science-based problems.
It also found that “girls tend to be consistently more anxious towards mathematics than boys” and they “underperform considerably” when it comes to scientific thinking and interactive problem solving.
The study showed that the expectations of parents, teachers and employers played a large role in girls’ performance in math and science, with parents much more likely to expect their sons to work in STEM fields even when they perform the same way as daughters at school.
So, what if anything can we do as parents to address potential underperformance by girls in STEM?
The first and possibly the simplest thing that we can do is to ensure that we are holding our daughters to the same standards and expectations that we would our sons when it comes to science and mathematics. Part of that is the way we talk to our daughters about science and maths, our attitudes have a big impact on theirs.
Before I had children, I used to happily tell people that I was innumerate, that is, numbers and I do not get along well and I used to avoid them like the plague as I had no interest in improving my skills. Then one day, a mentor said to me “would you tell me that you were illiterate with as little concern as you tell me that you can’t do numbers?”. That brought me up short. The answer was absolutely “no”. I am proud of my language skills and use them extensively on a daily basis.
My mentor told me that by saying that I was bad at numbers in order to avoid being given them, I was creating an impression that I was not as competent as others at similar levels of seniority. The truth is, that I feared numbers and sometimes felt bored with them but in reality I was at least as competent as most of my colleagues who were mainly men. I quickly changed my language and started to do more things that required me to examine, use and understand numbers. The more I did, the less scary and boring the whole thing became for me. I realised that I had been in a self-fulfilling cycle and once it was broken, I understood that the power had always been mine, it was the will that was lacking.
My point is, don’t let your daughters say: “I’m no good at science” or “it just doesn’t make sense to me”, when confronted with phrases like those, help them to articulate what specifically doesn’t make sense or when they say that they are no good ask them what in particular they are thinking about. By helping them to see that they are not “bad at science or maths” but that they have particular problems that they can overcome with persistence they will learn valuable life skills and will not be overshadowed by the boys in years to come.
If you are not confident with math or science yourself, don’t worry. Make sure that you don’t emphasise your own insecurity with the topics because kids pick up on that pretty easily. Teachers are usually more than willing to help if you contact them when your child has hit a road block. By starting these skills in early school years, your kids will naturally begin to problem solve for themselves as they approach high school.
The other thing that you can do is to emphasise the part that women and girls play in the science world. One way to do this is by reading to them. There are no end of fabulous books both fiction and non-fiction that girls from as young as 3-years-old will enjoy listening to. To help you on your way, we have listed some of the books you might like to try by age group below.