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Getting more girls and women into STEM education and careers

Despite significant improvements in recent decades, education is not universally available and gender inequalities persist. A major concern in many countries is not only limited numbers of girls going to school, but also limited educational pathways for those that step into the classroom. This includes, more specifically, how to address the lower participation and learning achievement of girls in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.

STEM underpins the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and STEM education can provide learners with the knowledge, skills, attitudes and behaviours required for inclusive and sustainable societies. Leaving out girls and women in STEM education and careers is a loss for all.
This report aims to ‘crack the code’, or to decipher the factors that hinder or facilitate girls’ and women’s participation, achievement and continuation in STEM education, and what can be done by the education sector to promote girls’ and women’s interest in, and engagement with, STEM.
Gender differences in STEM education participation at the expense of girls are already visible in early childhood care and education (ECCE) and become more visible at higher levels of education. Girls appear to lose interest in STEM subjects with age, and lower levels of participation are already seen in advanced studies at secondary level. By higher education, women represent only 35% of all students enrolled in STEM-related elds of study. Gender di erences also exist in STEM disciplines, with the lowest female enrolment observed in information, communication and technology (ICT); engineering, manufacturing and construction; and natural science, mathematics and statistics. Women leave STEM disciplines in disproportionate numbers during their higher education studies, in their transition to the world of work and even during their career cycle.

Cross-national studies of learning achievement (measuring knowledge acquisition or knowledge application) from more than 100 hundred countries present a complex picture. In middle- to high-income countries for which trend data are available, data gaps to girls’ disadvantage are closing, particularly in science. In addition, in countries where girls do better than boys on curriculum-based assessments, their score difference can be up to three times higher than when boys do better.

There are significant regional differences, however. For example, girls outperform boys in many countries in Asia while the score di erence between boys and girls in science achievement is particularly strong in the Arab States, with girls significantly outperforming boys.

More countries demonstrate gender differences to boys’ advantage in mathematics achievement, with boys’ score differentials as compared to those of girls often increasing between early and late primary education. Regional differences exist also in mathematics; girls are particularly disadvantaged in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. Differences also exist between assessments that measure learning against the curriculum-based compared to those that measure students’ ability to apply knowledge and skills to different situations. Boys performed better in two-thirds of the 70 countries measuring applied learning in math at age 15.

Education systems and schools play a central role in determining girls’ interest in STEM subjects and in providing equal opportunities to access and benefit from quality STEM education.
Research on biological factors, including brain structure and development, genetics, neuroscience and hormones, shows that the gender gap in STEM is not the result of sex differences in these factors or in innate ability. Rather, findings suggest that learning is underpinned by neuro- plasticity, the capacity of the brain to expand and form new connections, and that education performance, including in STEM subjects, is influenced by experience and can be improved through targeted interventions. Spatial and language skills, especially written language, are positively correlated with performance in mathematics and can be improved with practice, irrespective of sex, especially during the earlier years of life.

These findings highlight the need to look at other factors to explain gender differences in STEM. Studies suggest that girls’ disadvantage in STEM is the result of the interaction of a range of factors embedded in both the socialisation and learning processes. These include social, cultural and gender norms which in uence the way girls and boys are brought up, learn and interact with parents, family, friends, teachers and the wider community, and which shape their identity, beliefs, behaviour and choices. Self-selection bias, when girls and women chose not to pursue STEM studies or careers, appears to play a key role. However, this ‘choice’ is an outcome of the socialisation process and stereotypes that are both explicitly and implicitly passed on to girls from a young age. Girls are often brought up to believe that STEM are ‘masculine’ topics and that female ability in this field is innately inferior to that of males. This can undermine girls’ confidence, interest and willingness to engage in STEM subjects.

Evidence shows that girls’self-efficacy and attitudes related to STEM are strongly influenced by their immediate family environment, especially parents, but also the wider social context. Parents’ own beliefs, attitudes and expectations are themselves influenced by gender stereotypes, which can cause di erential treatment of girls and boys in care, play and learning experiences. Mothers, more than fathers, appear to have a greater influence on their daughters’ education and career choices, possibly due to their role-model function. Parents with higher socio-economic status and higher educational qualifications tend to have more positive attitudes towards STEM education for girls than parents with lower socio-economic status and education, of immigrant status and ethnic minority background or single parents. Media representations of women, and the status of gender equality in society also has an important influence, as it influences the expectations and status of women, including in STEM careers.

Education systems and schools play a central role in determining girls’ interest in STEM subjects and in providing equal opportunities to access and bene t from quality STEM education. Teachers, learning contents, materials and equipment, assessment methods and tools, the overall learning environment and the socialisation process in school, are all critical to ensuring girls’ interest in and engagement with STEM studies and, ultimately, STEM careers.

Teaching quality and specialisation in STEM subjects are essential for good quality STEM education. The sex of STEM teachers appears to make a difference too. Female STEM teachers have a positive influence on girls’ performance and engagement with further STEM studies and careers. Girls also appear to perform better when teaching strategies take into consideration their learning needs, and when teachers have high expectations of them in STEM subjects and treat them equally. In contrast, girls’ learning experience in STEM is compromised when teachers hold stereotypical beliefs about sex-based STEM ability or treat boys and girls unequally in the classroom.

Learning contents and materials also impact on girls’ performance in STEM. Curricula that are gender-balanced and take account of girls’ interests, for example, linking abstract concepts with real-life situations, can help increase girls’ interest in STEM. Evidence also suggests that hands-on activities, for example in laboratories, can enhance girls’ interest. In view of the increasing role of information, communication and technologies (ICT) in the STEM workplace, more attention is needed to ensure that girls have equal opportunities to quality ICT education, addressing stereotypes therein.

Assessment contents, tools and processes can a ect girls’ learning outcomes in STEM subjects. Psychological reactions to competition or testing, such as mathematics anxiety, which is more common among female learners, and teachers’ own biases, may further compromise girls’ performance. Like all aspects of education, the way STEM learning is assessed needs to be free from gender bias.

Supportive learning environments can increase girls’ self-con dence and self-e cacy in STEM. Exposure to real-world learning opportunities, such as through extra-curricular activities, eld trips, camps and apprenticeships, can help inspire and retain girls’ interest. Mentoring appears to be particularly bene cial for girls, enhancing their con dence and motivation and improving their understanding of STEM careers.

Getting more girls and women into STEM education and careers requires holistic and integrated responses that reach across sectors and that engage girls and women in identifying solutions to persistent challenges. Doing so moves us all towards gender equality in education where women and men, girls and boys can participate fully, develop meaningfully, and create a more inclusive, equitable and sustainable world.

Chosen excerpts by Job Market Monitor. Read the whole story at  UNESCO International Symposium and Policy Forum. Cracking the code : girls’ education in STEM

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