Giving girls the tools to succeed in STEM

A new initiative funded by the Australian Government aims to encourage girls to study and pursue careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM). Journalist Mykeala Campanini investigates.

The GiST (Girls in Stem Toolkit) is a website featuring resources for students, teachers and families to better understand the diverse STEM careers available to girls and to address the gender bias and stereotyping in science and maths that often begins in the early years of girls’ education.

In Australia, women comprise only 16% of the STEM qualified population, with figures showing poor attraction to the field starts at an early age.

Only 26.3% of girls in Year 12 are enrolled in Information Technology subjects, boys outnumber girls three to one in physics subjects and there are double the number of male students enrolled in mathematics.

You can’t be what you can’t see

Dr Rebecca Cooper, a Senior Lecturer in Science Education at Monash University in Melbourne, says girls’ development of confidence and interest in STEM is impacted from an early age with bias and stereotyping significant barriers to more girls pursuing STEM careers.

“Women are under represented in STEM professions, and this is problematic from both equity and economic perspectives,” Cooper said.

“A more equal gender balance is associated with more productive STEM workplaces, and higher quality STEM research.

“Girls really need to ‘see it to be it’ and ‘know it to go it’ – there are many STEM pathways that girls can take, but if they are not aware of them, how can they pursue them?

“There is a need to overcome the stereotype that scientists and engineers should be male.

“Careers are also often presented with a generic title such as scientist or engineer, when really there are finer grained categories that could be explored, for example, the work of a meteorologist is different to the work of a chemist, but they are both categorised as scientists.”

A lack of diverse and visible women role models in STEM, from the classroom through to books and movies, as well as the perception that STEM fields are better suited to males –which can come from the bias of career counsellors, teachers and parents – also decrease the likelihood of girls pursuing STEM education.

Australian Government Women in STEM Ambassador and Professor of Practice at the University of NSW in Sydney, Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith, said that while women are smashing it in their roles in the STEM field, they still feel like ‘others’.

“Many women who work in STEM grew up with few, or even no female role models in their chosen field of expertise,” Harvey-Smith said. “We may have been the only woman in our physics class, or the only female apprentice on the worksite.

“There are many cultural and systemic barriers to women pursuing STEM. Many of these are derived from the stereotypes that our society holds around desirable and proper behaviour and traits of girls and boys.

“Girls don’t need any extra encouragement at school because they are really smart and perform well in a wide range of subjects, but often the career options in STEM can seem confusing or unappealing to girls, because a lot of information they are getting relies on stereotypes.

“If girls are discouraged from being curious, adventurous and playing with hands-on toys from a young age, is it any wonder they are underrepresented in engineering and technology employment by a factor of 10:1?

“We must all do better, as families, educators and the media in ironing out these stereotypes and inequities.”

The Australian Government released a strategy for women in science in 2019. Called Advancing Women in STEM, it states: “Feminine gender role stereotypes have been shown to orient girls towards developing social skills and gravitate towards activities that emphasise interpersonal relationships, whilst international research has also found that boys are more likely to be encouraged to pursue computing and engineering roles by parents, teachers and the media, and are more likely to be told they could be good at computer science.”

The strategy calls for women in STEM from a diversity of backgrounds to be more visible across society to ensure STEM studies are seen as a positive and relevant choice for all young Australian women.

“Recent research by Professionals Australia showed that a majority of Australian women in STEM professions reported that a lack of role models and women in senior positions presented an obstacle to career advancement,” the strategy states.

“Increasing visibility of positive women role models in STEM, whether on the screen, in the classroom or at work, will help girls and women to see STEM as a viable and attractive career option.”

In her role as Australian Governments’ Women in STEM Ambassador, Harvey-Smith said one of her main areas of focus is to break down stereotypes about gender and STEM.

“My goal is to normalise women in STEM careers, including engineering and IT and to show young people that in order to solve global challenges they will need a mixture of problem-solving, critical thinking, teamwork and creativity,” she said.

“When these messages start to become part of everyday thinking in Australian schools, we will be in a much stronger position as a nation to face the challenges of the coming decade.”

The toolkit

The GiST website features three sections targeted at students, schools and families – with activities, resources, case studies, lesson plans and study pathway information designed to encourage girls to explore the potential of study and a career in STEM.

Andrew Smith, CEO of Education Services Australia (ESA) which developed The GiST said the online toolkit aims to lift the engagement of girls in STEM, with a strong focus on addressing the under-representation of girls and women in this field.

“The GiST aims to build girl students’ confidence around STEM subjects, and support teachers and families to engage meaningfully with girls about pursuing careers in STEM,” Smith said.

“Research has shown that when girls are exposed to positive female STEM role models, their interest in STEM increases and they experience an improved self-concept related to STEM fields.

“This is why The GiST aims to assist in making women in STEM more visible through providing examples of great role models.”

Cooper is an advocate for The GiST and the important role the toolkit can play in breaking down the gender stereotypes associated with STEM.

There is a need to overcome the stereotype that scientists and engineers should be male.

“The GiST highlights the journeys of women who are active participants in STEM and allows them a platform to tell others about their STEM journey,” he said. “These stories are powerful in that they provide a more personal perspective of STEM, allowing girls to make connections.”

Challenging perceptions

ESA reports that current research shows 25% of students find their teachers to be the most influential people around subject selection.

“Teachers have the opportunity to make a change to the number of girls participating in STEM study and careers,” Smith said.

“STEM is about creativity and collaboration, but it is often not perceived this way.

“Girls are interested in careers that are creative, solve problems and help to make the world a better place, and a career in STEM can provide this.

“Teachers can use The GiST to identify school events, browse a range of classroom activities and even read case studies from schools that are already successfully implementing STEM in the classroom.

“These resources are aimed to help challenge young girls’ perception of STEM, educate them on the career opportunities available to them in this field and provide women role models they can look up to.”

Cooper also encourages schools to consider using The GiST as a tool for career counselling and career conversations.

“The GiST could be used as part of careers advising, subject selection, STEM classes, or discussion starters, it offers concrete examples of career possibilities and pathways for future success in STEM,” Cooper said.

“It can also be used to assist teachers outside of the STEM subjects to gain an appreciation for what STEM is.”

Parents play a vital role

Smith also encourages teachers to engage with students’ families and ensure they are aware of the resources available to them through The GiST.

“Parents have a huge influence on students’ study and career choices, and The GiST has just released a kit to help schools engage with families; it includes posters, flyers and a case study of a school STEM night,” Smith said. “Families can find out about why STEM matters and how to get their daughters more involved in STEM.”

Cooper said the earlier girls are engaged with STEM, the more likely they will be to pursue it in their studies and as a career option.

“Families have the opportunity to open up discussions with girls about what STEM looks like for them and to bring to their attention the full range of STEM career options,” Cooper said.

“These conversations need to be had as early as possible with girls so that there is a chance for stereotypes to be challenged and a growth mindset instilled.

“The GiST can be used to start conversations with young girls to build on their interests (for example, space, building or animals) and show how they can pursue these interests on a lifelong journey of learning, passion and discovery through STEM.”

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Photo courtesy of Education Services Australia