Its been known for the last decade that girls do better than boys at GCSE and A-levels. More women go to university than men (World Bank, UNESCO) and women are better qualified. Despite the positive trends at schools, the transition from school to university is a critical time for women when they choose subjects related to STEM.
Although women’s qualifications have improved with time, they vary with field. Women’s representation in the STEM workforce is also uneven. For example, women are well represented in the biological discipline but make up a small minority of engineers and are underrepresented in many STEM occupations. UK has the lowest proportion of engineering professionals (5.5%) with only 13% of those working in occupations are classed as STEM.
Who needs STEM? Google, Microsoft, Apple, YouTube – the list is endless.
Why so few women in STEM?
– Social and environmental factors shape girls achievements and interests in math and science. This re-shaping contribute to the under representation of young girls and women in STEM.
– The climate of schools and university science and engineering departments are especially important and will influence young women when they choose careers in STEM.
– The continuing influence of the negative stereotype and unconscious bias will limit women’s progress in scientific and engineering fields.
For example, the negative stereotypes about girls’ and women’s abilities in math and science persist even though A-level results are better.
Research by Prof Shelley Correll at Stanford University showed that women are “harder on themselves” when assessing their abilities in math and science. In fact, boys do not pursue mathematical activities at a higher rate than girls do because they are better at math. They do so, at least partially, because they “think” they are better.
One of the largest and most persistent gender gaps in cognitive skills is found in spatial skills, where boys consistently outperform girls. However, spatial skills are not innate and can be improved with training. For example, playing with building toys as well as drawing can help children develop spatial skills.
Prof Carol Dweck’s research at Stanford University provides psychological evidence that mentoring for the “growth mindset” instead of a “fixed mindset” benefits girls in the STEM disciplines. If we teach children that intellectual skills can be acquired, this leads to a desire to learn and therefore tendency to embrace challenges, learn from criticism and be inspired by others’ success. We should send the message that you can value growth and learning.
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