Tremendous strides have been made in narrowing the gender gap in education in recent decades, with millions of girls and women previously shut out of learning opportunities altogether now exercising their fundamental right to education and thriving in the pursuit. However, beyond the head count, severe gender inequalities still persist for those already in school. [...]

Business Times

Only 35% students in higher education enrolled in STEM-related fields :UNESCO study


Tremendous strides have been made in narrowing the gender gap in education in recent decades, with millions of girls and women previously shut out of learning opportunities altogether now exercising their fundamental right to education and thriving in the pursuit.

However, beyond the head count, severe gender inequalities still persist for those already in school. Gender stereotypes and biased attitudes compromise the quality of the learning experience for female students and limit their education choices. This is a particular concern in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects, where girls are seriously under-represented. STEM fields drive the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, enabling innovative solutions to current and future challenges. There can be no peaceful and lasting development unless girls and women have equal access to education that can fuel their dreams and enable them to contribute to the better world we all desire, according to UNESCO.

The organisation’s publication, ‘Cracking the Code: Girls’ and Women’s Education in STEM’, which was released at an UNCESCO international symposium and policy forum on the same topic in Bangkok on August 28-30, provides an in-depth look at the challenges resulting in low participation, learning achievement and progression for girls and women in STEM and possible solutions. Here are some highlights from the report:

Overall status of girls in education
Despite advances in getting girls into school, significant gender disparities persist. Socio-economic, cultural and other obstacles still prevent female learners from completing or benefiting fully from good quality education of their choice in many settings.

So what are the barriers? Not only do girls have fewer initial educational opportunities, but there are systemic impediments at every step that push them out of STEM fields, UNESCO says.

For many countries, there is concern not only about too few girls attending school, but the limited educational pathways available for those that do step into the classroom. Girls are significantly under-represented in STEM subjects in many settings.

Girls appear to lose interest in STEM subjects as they get older, particularly between early and late adolescence. The gender gap in STEM becomes particularly apparent in upper secondary education, as reflected in girls’ choices of advanced studies in mathematics and science.

Gender gaps become stark in higher education. Female students represent only 35 per cent of all students enrolled in STEM-related fields of study globally.
Women continue to drop out of STEM disciplines in disproportionate numbers during their higher education studies, while transitioning to the world of work and even during their career cycle.

What is the role of socialisation in these trends, and to what extent do girls and women internalise negative stereotypes?

Girls’ disadvantage in STEM is a result of multiple and overlapping factors embedded in both the socialisation and learning processes. These include social, cultural and gender norms, which influence the way girls and boys are brought up, learn and interact with parents, family, friends, teachers and the wider community. These influences are a powerful force in shaping their identity, beliefs, behaviour and choices.

Girls are often brought up to believe that STEM subjects are “masculine” topics and that female ability in STEM is innately inferior to that of males. While research on biological factors belies any factual basis for such beliefs, they persist and undermine girls’ confidence, interest and willingness to engage in STEM subjects.

How can we help girls and women understand that gender stereotypes are artificial constructs and that studies and careers in STEM are open to them?
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. 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 and engagement in STEM studies and, ultimately, STEM careers.

STEM careers are considered to be ‘the’ jobs of the future. Ensuring girls and women have equal access to STEM education and ultimately STEM careers is an imperative from the human rights, scientific, and development perspectives. Gender equality in STEM will ensure that boys and girls, men and women, will be able to acquire skills and opportunities to contribute to and benefit equally from the benefits of STEM, the report says.

Key indicators show we’re deprived of the talents and potential contributions of millions of women due to clear gender-based discrepancies in STEM education and occupations

The gender gap in STEM education is striking. In higher education, only 35 per cent of all students enrolled in STEM-related fields are females.

Enrolment is particularly low in ICT (3 per cent); natural sciences, mathematics and statistics (5 per cent); as well as engineering, manufacturing and construction (8 per cent). Participation is highest in health and welfare (15 per cent) studies.

In Europe, only 29 of 1,000 female graduates had a degree in computing in 2015, and just four out of 1,000 went on to have ICT careers. Girls’ own perceptions of their abilities play a crucial role in this divide

Self-efficacy affects STEM education outcomes, aspirations for relevant careers and performance. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2015 shows that girls have lower self-efficacy in science and mathematics than boys – a difference that has remained largely unchanged since 2006.
In countries where the 10 per cent top-performing boys score significantly above the 10 per cent top-performing girls in science, there tends to be a larger gender gap in self-efficacy in boys’ favour.

ICILS 2013 found that in Grade 8, girls scored better than boys in all participating countries in computer and information literacy, with an average difference of 18 points. However, in all participating countries again, girls’ perceived self-efficacy in advanced ICT skills was significantly lower than boy’s.

Variety of factors influence learning outcomes in STEM

PISA 2015 found that boys tend to enjoy science more than girls in most participating countries (29 of 47). The differences in boys’ favour were particularly wide in Taiwan Province of China, France, Germany, Japan and the Republic of Korea. Girls were more likely than boys to report enjoying science in only 18 of the 47 countries, particularly in Jordan and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

In OECD countries, girls’ science performance appears to be strongly associated with parents’ beliefs and higher education qualifications. Mothers, more than fathers, appear to have a greater influence on their daughters’ education and career choices.

Higher socio-economic status is also linked with higher scores in mathematics for both boys and girls. PISA 2015 found that a one-unit increase in the PISA Index of Economic, Social and Cultural Status resulted in an increase of 38 score points in science and 37 in mathematics.

Girls might be discouraged from taking STEM subjects if their peers, particularly female friends, view these subjects as inappropriate for women, significantly affecting their interest and confidence.

Girls reported stronger feelings of tension and anxiety related to mathematics performance in many studies and are more likely to suffer from test anxiety than boys. Mathematics anxiety has been linked to a decline in performance of 34 score points – equivalent to almost one year of school.

Girls’ lower confidence in STEM subjects is reflected in their social media communications. A Latin American study revealed that one-third of students’ social media shares about women and girls in STEM were sexist, while 75 per cent of all self-mocking messages about math were posted by girls.

Biases embedded within school systems must be addressed

Teachers can create a biased classroom environment, dissuading girls from pursuing STEM studies. For example, it was found that in Latin America, up to 20 per cent of mathematics teachers in Grade 6 believed that mathematics was easier for boys. A review of studies in the US found that teachers’ expectations regarding mathematics were often gender-biased, which could influence girls’ performance. A recent study in the UK and Ireland found that 57 per cent of teachers held subconscious gender stereotypes in relation to STEM.

Classroom observations have shown that girls are accorded less time in the classroom for instruction, ask fewer questions and receive less praise than boys. One study in Asia found that 65 per cent and 61 per cent of student-teacher interactions in mathematics and science classes respectively were with boys.

A recent UNESCO review of more than 110 national curricula in primary and secondary schools in 78 countries found that many mathematics and science textbooks and other learning materials conveyed gender bias. For example, in India, more than 50 per cent of illustrations in mathematics and science textbooks at primary level portrayed only male characters, while just 6 per cent showed only female ones.

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