A recent study led by Rose O’Dea, a University of New South Wales PhD student, analysed the grades of 1.6 million students in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects. The study compared gender differences in variation of grades for students in year one through to university, throughout 268 different schools and classrooms across the globe.

The study revealed that they had similar performance results, even at the top of the class—with the top 10 per cent containing equal numbers of girls and boys. So why is there, currently, a lack of women in STEM-related jobs?

Low representation in STEM

The gender equity issue in STEM careers is well known. The fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are predominantly male-led and have historically had low representation of women.

A report by Australian Government’s Chief Scientist in 2016, Alan Simon Finkle, provided the first detailed analysis of Australia’s STEM trained workforce and found that only a dismal 16 per cent of STEM qualified people are female.

In 2011, 84 per cent of those with a STEM qualification were male, but the gender distribution varied across different STEM fields. In science, the gender distribution was approximately equal, with 51 per cent males and 48 per cent females. Engineering had the most uneven gender distribution, with a 93 per cent male workforce. The distribution also varied across different qualification types—like university and VET.

What’s the problem?

A 2017 study of 1,327 Swedish secondary school students looked at why boys are more attracted to STEM subjects at university than girls.

Part of the difference was explained by social belongingness, which is defined as the perception of social connectedness in groups, or fitting-in socially with others.

They found that teenagers felt that if they picked subjects that had a higher representation of their gender, they would fit-in more.

However, another factor was self-efficacy, which is the belief that one can succeed in a specific domain. We tend to choose environments in which we feel competent and try to avoid situations where we don’t. The study found that on average, girls had lower levels of self-efficacy in STEM subjects, even though they outperformed boys across high-school subjects.

Despite Sweden being one of the most gender-neutral countries in the world, girls still don’t feel as capable in STEM subjects.

Government initiatives

In the 2018–19 Budget, the Coalition announced 4.5 million in new funding to encourage more women to pursue STEM in their education and careers. More recently, they announced they would be offering National Science Week grants valued between $2,000 and $20,000.

In addition, last month the Coalition revealed that they would make a $580,000 contribution to help fund The Girls in STEM Toolkit. Developed by Education Services Australia (a national state-owned not-for-profit), the toolkit aims to increase female participation in STEM.

The educational toolkit will feature articles and case studies on a digital platform. The objective is to motivate students to pursue STEM subjects, and to help young people understand the importance of STEM skills.

Why is STEM so important?

STEM skills are critical to Australia’s prosperity.

Australia’s future will rely on science, technology, engineering and mathematics—disciplines at the heart of innovation. Businesses will rely on STEM to compete in the new sectors that changing technologies will create, and the existing sectors which technology will transform. Australia’s workforce will require specialised skills in STEM as well as high STEM literacy across the board to sustain economic growth.

Research shows that STEM students are more creative, flexible and better prepared to take advantage of the workplace changes that are expected in the future. Technology will continue to disrupt more and more industries, so there is a real concern that there won’t be enough people with STEM-qualifications to fill these roles.

How do we get more girls to study STEM subjects?

Both of the studies mentioned found that girls are no less capable of studying STEM but, despite this, they still feel so. Young women interested in STEM face barriers that have nothing to do with their abilities; hurdles like discrimination, stereotypes, and harassment.

We need to find a way to remove these barriers and enable young women to feel just as empowered and capable of pursuing careers in STEM. One way we can do this is by providing role-models.

Award-winning astrophysicist Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith has been selected as Australia’s first Women in STEM Ambassador. Professor Harvey-Smith will be tasked with advocating for girls and women in STEM education and careers, raising awareness, and driving social and cultural change in efforts to achieve gender equity.

We must encourage more girls and women to pursue education and careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Increasing female participation in STEM will not only strengthen Australia’s research, science and business capabilities, but it will also help drive greater gender equity throughout Australia’s workforce.