Narrowing the gender gap in STEM

This article was written for SecEd magazine and was first published in June 2015. You can read the original here.  Read more of my monthly columns for SecEd here.  This is the third of three articles on narrowing the gap.  Read the first part here and the second part here.  


In the first two parts of this series I explored why the gender gap in education exists and looked at ways of closing the gap between girls and boys in reading and writing (where boys lag behind). In this third and final article, I will turn my attention to the gap between boys and girls in STEM subjects (where girls lag behind).

What is the gap?

As I explained in part one, boys perform better than girls in maths, although the gender gap is narrower than in reading (where girls outperform boys). Also, there remain significant disparities in the subjects boys and girls choose to study, with girls less likely to choose scientific and technological fields of study than boys. And, even when girls do choose these subjects, they are less likely to take up careers in related fields. This widens the gap later in life in the career and earning prospects of women.

In 2012, only 14 per cent of young women who entered university for the first time chose science-related fields of study, including engineering, manufacturing and construction. By contrast, 39 per cent of young men who entered university that year chose to pursue one of those fields of study.

Why does the gap exist?

One reason for this gap is the perpetuation of gender stereotypes and attitudes. Educational aspirations are formed at a young age and gender stereotyping frequently takes place in subtle ways at home, in schools, and in wider society. For example, primary school teachers and secondary English and languages teachers are predominantly women, while secondary maths and science teachers are predominantly men. What messages are boys and girls getting about adult life choices? Also, text books are often guilty – even today – of referring to female nurses and male engineers, for example.

One solution, therefore, would be to encourage more men into primary teaching and more women into secondary maths and sciences, and to ensure more examples are given of female mathematicians and scientists, both in textbooks and in verbal examples given by teachers. Schools should also explicitly raise students’ awareness of the likely consequences of stereotypical male and female choices of subjects on their later careers and earnings.

Addressing the stereotype in this way may also increase girls’ confidence, because evidence suggests that at present, in general, girls are not as confident as boys in their ability to solve maths and science problems.

And girls’ lack of confidence leads to lower levels of attainment. On average across OECD countries, the point score difference in maths performance between high-achieving girls and boys is 19. However, when comparing boys and girls who reported similar levels of self-confidence in maths or of anxiety towards maths, the gender gap in performance disappears.

Changing gender stereotypes in school is, however, only part of the answer: attitudes are also crucially determined by what happens at home. Schools need to educate parents, as well as students, in gender equality matters.

In a paper pithily entitled Research-Informed Practices for Inclusive Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Classrooms: Strategies for educators to close the gender gap, the authors – an equally tongue-twisting line-up of Scutt, Gilmartin, Sheppard, and Brunhaver from Stanford University – articulate seven key practices which, they argue, can create more gender-inclusive STEM classrooms. The seven practices – which I have related to the English school system – are as follows.

1. Study maths

The paper’s authors argue that it is hard to overstate the importance of a solid foundation in mathematics for all potential STEM students, but more specifically they argue that “calculus (is) an especially important step in increasing the likelihood of girls to pursue STEM”.

Sadler and Tai’s study, Two High School Pillars Supporting College Science, found that the best foundation for studying science at an advanced level was to study advanced mathematics. They found that studying maths for longer increased the average grade in biology and chemistry more than studying biology and chemistry.

2. Develop spatial skills

Spatial awareness is the ability to recognise or solve problems associated with the relationships between objects or figures, including position, direction, size, form, and distance. Although it is stereotypical to say that women have poor spatial awareness – and a claim without scientific evidence of genetic or hormonal differences between the genders – spatial skills are malleable through practice and improving spatial skills has proven, in the US, to improve the retention of engineering students and therefore it is a strategy worth exploring for schools wishing to narrow the gender gap in STEM subjects.

Among undergraduate women who failed a spatial skills initial assessment test in the US, 77 per cent of those who took a spatial-visualisation course were still enrolled in or had graduated from the school of engineering. In contrast, only 48 per cent of those women who failed the test and did not take the spatial-visualisation course were still enrolled in or had graduated from the school of engineering.

While the spatial-visualisation course did not raise women’s scores above those of men, the intervention did close the gender gap in the scores achieved by men and women.

Early training in spatial skills is beneficial because spatial skills help students interpret diagrams in maths and science tests and textbooks. In fact, in one study quoted in the Stanford paper, “when mental rotation ability was statistically adjusted for, the significant gender difference in (key stage 3 maths) was eliminated … this suggests that spatial ability may be responsible in part for mediating gender differences in (maths ability)”. Spatial skills, the authors argue, may be a keystone in closing the gender gap in maths as well as the broader STEM gender gap.

3. Develop communication skills

The Stanford paper also suggests that, to help girls succeed in STEM subjects, teachers should emphasise the importance of communication skills in the practice of science and engineering, thereby changing the perception that individuals cannot be gifted or skilled in both maths and languages.

The vast majority of STEM jobs involve team-work, which necessitates communication. According to labour market information here in the UK, effective communication skills play a major role in career advancement in STEM fields. A study that observed formal and informal teaching of communication found that there were five important features of speaking in engineering: simplicity, persuasiveness, results-oriented, numerically rich, and visually sophisticated.

Despite the importance of communication to engineering, interpersonal communication and collaboration skills are generally portrayed as the opposite of maths and science skills, implying that people are almost always more skilled in one than the other. However, research provides compelling evidence that communication skills are essential in engineering, and suggests that integrating maths and communication skills in engineering would be of particular benefit to female students.

4. Encourage resilience

Developing students’ resilience is about helping them to embrace challenges and setbacks by teaching them that academic skills are malleable. In addition to combatting the negative stereotypes that girls and women face about their technical abilities, the practice of developing resilience is also an important life lesson for all students.

Girls may feel apprehensive about performing on a spatial skills task because they fear that performing poorly will confirm the existing negative stereotype. This so-called “stereotype threat” may actually cause girls to perform worse than they would otherwise do and therefore the danger lies in this phenomenon’s nature as a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, a mindset shift – whereby girls are presented with experiential accounts of the origins of stereotypes – can have measurable positive consequences to combat this downward spiral.

Several popular studies by Professor Carol Dweck have found that focusing on the power of practice rather than innate talent can be a key motivator for students and teaching the power of a growth mindset (as opposed to a fixed mindset) allows girls to perform better, even when they understand the stereotypes against them.

5. Give students an active expert role

Enabling students to adopt an “active expert role” – whereby they answer questions, make comments, teach others and express their own voice through presentation – can make students feel like they belong to the expert group. Since this feeling of belonging is what girls often lack in STEM fields, active expert roles can help girls in particular to enhance their sense of belonging to their classmates and to the learning material.

6. Have a clear marking policy

The Stanford report says that “girls may underestimate their performance in math classes in part due to gendered expectations of their competencies”. Thus, having a clear marking policy and giving constructive feedback should help girls to properly gauge their success based on their performance alone.

A study by sociologist Shelley Correll found that girls rely more on performance feedback in making self-assessments of their mathematical competency because, Correll argues, “they must contend with lower societal expectations of their mathematical competency”. This implies, therefore, that when girls cannot form a firm sense of their ability, they fill in the gap with societal expectations.

In short, girls need a better picture of where they stand in maths and science classes than do boys because otherwise they will use their biased self-assessment. The implications of these studies are that marks and test scores in maths and science must be better explained to students and feedback must be clearer and more constructive.

7. Re-evaluate group work

While group work has often been encouraged as an exercise to build team-work and communication skills, research cited in the Stanford report suggests that there may be subtle, unintended consequences which may cause us to reconsider the way group work is approached in the classroom.

One study on interpersonal communication which focused on gender and engineers versus non- engineers, for example, found that “engineering males were more likely than other groups to draw negative conclusions about speakers who engaged in self-belittlement by admitting to difficulties or mistakes – particularly with technological issues”. According to a study by Wolfe and Powell, this tendency towards self-belittlement in spoken language is more commonly exhibited by women.

It is likely that self-belittlement takes place during group work activities. While the original study suggests women try to eliminate their use of self-effacing speech, the Stanford report poses a better strategy: it recommends teachers reconsider how they structure group work.

Debbie Chachra, in an editorial entitled The Perils of Teamwork, which is cited in the Stanford report, argues that asking students in STEM classes to work in teams does not have the desired supportive effect.

Since school students have various levels of experience, they tend to divide based on skill-sets and self-efficacy. As such, girls are often given less technical and more managerial tasks. This can perpetuate a vicious cycle, says Chachra, to make girls feel that they do not belong in the maths and science fields.

Biased marking

One other solution – from left field – was mooted in a BBC article in April 2015. The article outlined the results of a study in France which analysed the records of almost 4,500 11-year-olds at 35 secondary schools and found that girls benefited from a marking bias by maths teachers.

The girls in the study – which was jointly carried out by the London School of Economics (LSE) and the Paris School of Economics – were given six per cent higher marks than boys for similar work. According to the researchers, as well as motivating them at the time, the assessment boost also encouraged the girls to take science subjects later in their school careers.

Camille Terrier of the LSE told the BBC that: “Altogether, these results show that positively rewarding pupils has the potential to affect their progress and course choice. Since we note that marks in maths influence the progress of students, they could be a way to reduce the inequalities in achievement between boys and girls.”

Be wise

A research review commissioned by the WISE campaign (Women into Science and Engineering) made eight recommendations to attract more girls into studying STEM, and to help improve girls’ attainment in these subjects. The eight recommendations, with which I will conclude this article, are as follows.

  1. Use information about the demand for STEM skills and qualifications, particularly the commercial value of mathematics and science qualifications, so that young people and their parents understand that taking these subjects will improve future job prospects. For example, not everyone understands that you can go from taking science at school to an exciting career in broadcast engineering, advanced manufacturing, covert surveillance, robotics, or computer gaming.
  2. Use role-models from diverse backgrounds to appeal to the whole spectrum of the student population. Show women working with diverse groups of colleagues, rather than a single talking head, because most girls do not want to be the odd one out.
  3. Girls respond to female role-models plus an explanation of the range of different careers available, using real jobs and current job titles. Role-models should be promoted from primary school age and at key decision points such as in year 9 when they chose GCSE subjects and year 11 when they choose whether to continue with STEM education.
  4. Show that there are vocational routes leading to technician and Apprenticeship jobs as a positive alternative or stepping stone into higher education.
  5. Use social media such as YouTube, Facebook and online forums to promote role-models to girls, their parents, relatives and carers, making use of blogs, podcasts and Twitter.
  6. Focus on sectors where there are fewer job profiles and case studies available: technology, computer programming, chemistry, energy and power, food, materials, advanced manufacturing, and the built environment.
  7. Actively promote examples of how employers are making real changes to the working environment, supply chain and partnerships in order to ensure that women, men and women with families, and other under-represented groups are welcome and will progress on merit.
  8. Collaborate with other organisations in order to have a bigger impact.

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