Watching video from the Apollo space programme one can’t help but notice how things have changed since those days in the early 1970s. Banks of small round rectangular screens, dot matrix printers, a myriad of switches and dials each with a specific task to perform and a design aesthetic that says functionality in mild mannered green. Beside the technology are the men who made the space programme possible. Men in shirts with narrow ties, sensible hair styles and the obligatory cigar. What is missing beside the sort of computing power we carry in our pockets today are women. In the 70s science and engineering was what men did and from a quick look at the statistics there continues to be much room for change.
Research reported by Kate Broadley (2011) shows that in New South Wales participation rates for girls in mathematics and science fell from 16.8% in 2001 to 13.8% in 2011. A similar but smaller downward trend is reported for boys across this period. The same picture is seen in the United States where Leaper et al (2012) report that 'among the recent doctoral degrees awarded in the U.S., women accounted for 27% in mathematics, 15% in physics, 20% in computer science, and 18% in engineering.’ and Milgram (2011) report that 0% of graduates in energy management and petroleum are women. This at a time when 58% of two-year college enrolments are women. In the UK, WISE (Women in Science and Engineering Analysis of Labour Force April-August 2014) reports that just 12.8% of the STEM workforce are women.
This is at a time when STEM skills are increasingly in demand. According to the Office of the Chief Scientist (Australia) ‘Science and innovation are recognised internationally as key for boosting productivity, creating more and better jobs, enhancing competitiveness and growing an economy.’(OCS 2014 p7) Analysis of the Australian job market by PwC shows that 44% of current jobs are likely to be at risk from computerisation and technology over the next 20 years and that 75% of the fastest growing occupations now require STEM skills. Adding to the significance of gendered career choices is research reported by Broadley that shows 'at 24 years, those who work in STEM occupations earn on average over $100 per week more than those who are employed in non-STEM occupations’. The bias in the selection of STEM pathways is thus becoming a social justice issue as patterns of participation described here for women are also present for other marginalised and disadvantaged groups, a fact recognised by Office of the Chief Scientist when he calls for 'high levels of participation and success in STEM for all Australians, including women, Indigenous students, and students from disadvantaged and marginalised backgrounds’.
The question that must be addressed is why do girls avoid STEM disciplines and what might be done to reverse this trend? One clear piece of evidence is that girls are as able in STEM fields as their male counterparts. Multiple research projects in Australia and the United States show that when other factors such as social economic status are accounted for results between genders in STEM subjects are equal. (Broadley 2011) and Peters (2013 p1) 'In fact, girls and boys throughout their formal schooling in most Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nations have enjoyed equivalent test scores in problem-solving and Science literacy.’ Despite this reality of equitable ability a recent report by Accenture in the UK showed that 60% of girls aged twelve believe mathematics and science is too difficult to learn. This study also revealed that 47% of the 4,000 young girls surveyed felt that STEM disciplines were better suited to boys.
Two studies (Broadley 2011 and Leaper et al 2012) have applied Eccles (2009) ‘Expectancy-Value Theory’ (EVT) of motivation to an analysis of girls perception of STEM disciplines. EVT explores the roles that an individuals expectations for success in a field and the value they apply to that field have as critical factors in motivation and engagement. Where the individual has low expectations for success and they value the task lowly they are unlikely to engage. Positive results are found when a range of personal and social factors are supportive of girls having high expectations for success and positive valuing of STEM disciplines. Leaper et al (2012) report that girls were more likely to have strong maths/science motivation if they experienced less conformity pressure (to typical gender roles) from parents, they endorsed gender equality, or they had been exposed to feminism. Social support for maths/science from peers was also found to positively impact engagement. Eccles (2011 p195) found similarly 'Furthermore, gendered socialisation practices at home, in the schools, and among peers play a major role in shaping these individual differences in self-perceptions and subjective task values.'
Research shows that girls make their career choices early, before age 14 (Broadley 2011) and possibly before they move into High School. Peters (2013) shows that girls interest in STEM careers as they exit school was best predicted by interest as they entered Secondary School. This means that schools need to ensure that girls are receiving affirmative messages about the potential of STEM pathways while they are in Primary school. The traditional approach of providing career guidance as girls approach their senior years of schooling is too late as significant choices about the broad directions likely to be taken have been made. This problem is exacerbated by the limited imaginaries that girls (and boys) have about their potential STEM related futures. The stereotypical image of a lab-coated scientist is as damaging to the image of STEM as it is false. Research shows that our young people have limited and limiting views of the diversity of pathways available to them in STEM fields and that STEM skills will be increasingly critical to many careers not traditionally associated with sciences. The danger for schools is that this message needs to be received while students are in the care of generalist teachers whose knowledge of the diversity of STEM disciplines is as impoverished as those they teach and who teach science guided by a traditional science curriculum.
The dominant response suggested by the research is to provide young girls with positive role models and mentors who will ignite their passions and reveal that STEM provides opportunities for girls. Watermeyer reports on the success that ‘Discover!’ has had in Cardiff, UK. Discover! is a STEM programme that pairs young girls with female Mentors and Role Models. Watermeyer (2012 p697) reports that 'we are confident in the value of Discover! in confirming and extending the scientific imaginations of young female learners and a sense that the programme is a catalyst for their future imaginaries.’ This success is largely a result of the exposure to successful and inspiring role models and ongoing support from female mentors. The importance of role models and mentors is supported by Broadley. and Milgram. with both indicating the importance of their involvement during the primary years. Milgram expands on the nature of the message required from role-models explaining that women need to see that work-life balance is achievable within STEM disciplines 'For this reason, it is critical that biographies of female role models used in outreach materials emphasize not only the path these women took to arrive at their chosen careers, but also the joy they found in their work, as well as their personal interests and family stories.’(Milgram 2011 p6)
Donna Milgram (2011 p5) writes 'Women and girls need to see female role models in the workplace that look like them—over and over and over again. They need to receive the message that women can work in STEM careers and be successful and fulfilled in their work life while still having a personal life, and they need to receive this message repeatedly.’ This is a message that needs to come through multiple channels including schools, parents, peer networks, industry and the media. Programmes such as CSIRO's Scientists and Mathematicians in Schools is one model that builds supportive connections between industry and schools. Industry should not wait idly for schools to deliver a gender neutral STEM workforce but should actively seek opportunities to develop partnerships and provide suitable role models to schools and clear descriptions of the diversity of options available.
The benefit to society is greater than bringing equity of career choice to girls but is about bringing new feminist perspectives, values and ideas to a growing field of endeavour with a critical role to play in our shared futures.
By Nigel Coutts
Kate Broadley (2015) Entrenched gendered pathways in science, technology, engineering and mathematics: Engaging girls through collaborative career development Australian Journal of Career Development Vol 24 (1) 27-38
Eccles, Jacquelynne. (2011). Gendered educational and occupational choices: Applying the Eccles et al. model of achievement-related choices. International Journal of Behavioural Development, 35, 195–201
Campbell Leaper., Timea Farkas & Christia Spears Brown (2012) Adolescent Girls’ Experiences and Gender-Related Beliefs in Relation to Their Motivation in Math/Science and English Journal of Youth Adolescence (2012) 41:268–282
Donna Milgram (2011) How to Recruit Women and Girls to the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Classroom Technology and Engineering Teacher; November 2011
Office of the Chief Scientist (2014) Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics: Australia’s Future. Australian Government, Canberra.
Heather Peters (2013) Girls’ Rosy Future in Green STEM Disciplines Redress August 2013
PwC (2015) A Smart Move: Future-proofing Australia’s workforce by growing skills in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) /April 2015
Richard Watermeyer (2012) Confirming the legitimacy of female participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM): evaluation of a UK STEM initiative for girls, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 33:5, 679-700
WISE (2014) Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and mathematics: The talent pipeline from classroom to boardroom - https://www.wisecampaign.org.uk/uploads/wise/files/WISE_UK_Statistics_2014.pdf