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ICGS: Failing at fairness: how gender bias deters girls from STEM

Girls’ participation in science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) disciplines has long been a topic of global concern — particularly, how to keep girls engaged in STEM and participating in advanced maths and science in secondary school.



Arguably, the equal participation and leadership of women and girls in STEM is more important than ever. Recent global crises, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, have shown us how critical the role of STEM is in finding solutions and making public policy.


Including women’s talent and voices broadens perspectives, increases creativity and innovation, diversifies competencies, and ultimately improves both economic and social outcomes. Yet despite this awareness, change is slow and inequalities remain.


The problem with girls and STEM starts early. Analysis by the Department of Industry, Science and Resources1 shows that girls’ confidence in STEM subjects is generally lower than boys’, and falls as they age. It also shows that girls are underrepresented in Year 12 STEM subject areas of information technology (24 per cent), physics and astronomy (24 per cent), and engineering and related technologies (23 per cent). Additionally, women only make up 36 per cent of enrolments in university STEM courses, and just 16 per cent of enrolments in vocational STEM courses. 


Of course, not every girl (or boy) wants a STEM-based career, but making sure students receive equal encouragement and opportunity to pursue the career of their choosing is vital.


In a co-educational environment, girls can be deterred from STEM at an early age. Girls in early primary school report feeling less confident about their maths ability compared to boys of the same age2 — and this can severely limit their subject choices, tertiary studies and career options.


Recent research3 with preschool-aged children has found that boys dominate the STEM-focused play areas, with girls only gaining access over time by adopting helping roles such as passing blocks or fetching materials. This kind of marginalisation, where girls are relegated to helping rather than occupying leading roles, is often underpinned by the biased actions and words of preschool teachers and carers. While these gender biases may be established in the early years, they are reinforced in primary and secondary school as well. 


Studies continue to evidence teachers’ implicit biases towards boys in co-ed environments. Teachers give more attention to boys in co-educational classrooms and are more likely to direct boys towards STEM careers, including mathematics, engineering, physics, and computing. Meanwhile, girls with the same academic results can be deterred from STEM. 


According to the 2015 Opening Doors report by Britain’s Institute of Physics,4 many co-educational schools have been “inadvertently reinforcing the notion that certain subjects” are “harder than others”; that girls “lack ability” and “innate talent” in certain subjects; and that this is “particularly true for girls contemplating mathematics and the physical sciences”.



It’s easy to see how strategies that push back against societal constructs of gendered roles from a young age and help girls explore all their abilities and talents, free from gender influences, can foster girls’ interest and enthusiasm for STEM. And importantly, fostering this enthusiasm can encourage them to continue pursuing their interest in secondary and tertiary subject choices, as well as careers. 


Equipping girls with the motivation, self-belief and resilience to feel confident about their abilities in maths and science also helps to foster this interest and enthusiasm for STEM. With higher levels of STEM confidence, girls are more assertive and more likely to ask critical questions that develop their understanding of a subject. They are also more prepared to make mistakes in front of their classmates and take risks with their learning.

Overall, girls’ schools have a discernible edge over co-educational schools when it comes to STEM participation rates, STEM confidence and aspirations. 


Girls’ schools provide an alternative narrative to the constant barrage of gender-biased messaging girls receive about what they ‘usually do and do not do’ — from subject and career choices to the depiction of gender roles in STEM.


In girls’ schools, girls are not relegated to helping roles. Every leadership position falls to a girl, whether they are formally recognised or the incidental roles that emerge from play, and in later years, from collaborative learning. Girls lead and see other girls lead, and this is incredibly powerful. 


Without the spectre of gendered biases looming large, girls feel less self-conscious about taking the lead or indeed tackling the so-called ‘tough’ STEM subjects. Overall, they experience a greater sense of belonging in any role they take on — whether in the science lab, maths classroom or the sports field. 


These experiences give girls the freedom to choose subjects based on their interests. Girls’ schools give students the confidence to choose these ‘harder’ STEM subjects, fortified by both the encouragement they receive and a culture that normalises girls’ STEM abilities. 


In recent years, there has been much made about gender differences seen in academic results, university enrolments and career pathways. However, numerous research studies from around the world demonstrate that students in single-sex schools benefit academically from a learning environment free from gender stereotyping, unconscious bias and social pressure.


An analysis of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) data5 confirms that girls’ school students outperform co-educated girls on PISA’s academic measures of science, mathematics and literacy. When analysing the results of a comparable group comprising girls from the top 25 per cent of SES backgrounds in Australia and New Zealand, again students from girls' schools outperformed girls from co-educational schools on all academic measures (science, mathematics and literacy). 



Encouragingly, a study of VCE data from Monash University6 showed that girls at single-sex schools are 85 per cent more likely to take advanced mathematics compared to girls in co-ed schools. They are also 79 per cent more likely to study chemistry, 68 per cent more likely to take intermediate mathematics, and 47 per cent more likely to study physics.


Across the board, girls’ schools deliver higher participation in STEM subjects, which is supported by higher levels of engagement, enjoyment and aspiration.


A 2015 study by Kester Lee and Judy Anderson7 from the University of Sydney found that girls in single-sex schools have the most positive attitudes of all students, followed by boys in single-sex schools, then co-educational boys and finally, co-educational girls. Lee and Anderson concluded that, for girls, “single-sex settings resulted in much more favourable attitudes towards mathematics than those in co-educational settings”.


Similarly, a 2016 report by Chris Ryan8 of the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research confirms that, by Year 8, girls in single-sex schools are more likely to enjoy and be confident in mathematics than girls in co-educational schools. 


A study of Australian data by Kieu My Tran9 found that single-sex environments have a positive impact on girls by encouraging them to take more male-dominated subjects than girls in co-ed schools. In particular, girls from single-sex schools who achieve highly in maths are more likely to choose male-dominated STEM subjects than girls from co-ed schools who are similarly good at maths. 


Research from Europe echoes these benefits for girls attending single-sex schools, with a 2015 study from Switzerland10 identifying a “very robust” positive effect on mathematics proficiency for girls. Girls in single-sex classes also “evaluate their mathematics skills more positively and are more likely to attribute their performance in mathematics to their own efforts rather than to exogenous talent or luck”.


It is apparent that if we want higher participation rates and gender equity in STEM for girls, then one way to achieve tangible results is to provide girls with learning environments where gender bias simply does not exist. Girls’ schools provide that environment — gender stereotypes are removed and girls are purposefully educated to reject and overcome gender bias as they pursue their interests with confidence and vigour.


About the International Coalition of Girls’ Schools (ICGS)

ICGS is united in elevating women’s leadership worldwide by educating and empowering our students to be ethical, globally-minded changemakers. 


As the leading global advocate for girls’ schools, we represent over 550 girls’ schools and over 350,000 students across 22 countries.


Gender equity and equality is an urgent, enduring, and global imperative, which demands that girls’ schools continue to forge educational spaces where the learning and healthy development of girls are prioritised. Girls’ schools are intentional places of inclusion and belonging, where students discover who they are and how they want to go forward in the world. 


Girls’ schools have long been vital leaders for social and gender equity and equality. 


By Loren Bridge, Regional Executive Director, Australasia, ICGS


References

1. STEM Equity Monitor. Department of Industry, Science and Resources. 2023. Accessed December 10, 2023. https://www.industry.gov.au/publications/stem-equity-monitor 

2. Koch, I. Maths Anxiety: Students, Pre- and In-Service Teachers. Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute. 2018. Accessed December 10, 2023. https://amsi.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/researchreport4-maths_anxiety_students_and_teachers.pdf 

3. Fleer M. Re-imagining play spaces in early childhood education: Supporting girls’ motive orientation to STEM in times of COVID-19. Journal of Early Childhood Research. 2021;19(1), 3-20. Accessed December 10, 2023. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1476718X20969848 

4. Opening doors: A guide to good practice in countering gender stereotyping in schools. Institute of Physics. 2015. Accessed December 10, 2023. https://www.iop.org/sites/default/files/2019-02/opening-doors-countering-stereotyping.pdf 

5. Macquarie Marketing Group (MMG), Alliance of Girls’ Schools Australasia. New PISA analysis shows girls’ school students outscore co-ed girls on all academic measures. Alliance of Girls’ Schools Australasia. 2020. Accessed December 10, 2023. https://www.agsa.org.au/news/new-pisa-analysis-shows-girls-school-students-outscore-co-ed-girls-on-all-academic-measures/ 

6. Forgasz H, Leder G. Single-sex versus co-educational schooling and STEM pathways: Final report. Melbourne: Monash University. October 2017. Accessed December 10, 2023. https://www.agsa.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Alliance-final-report.pdf 

7. Lee K, Anderson J. Gender differences in mathematics attitudes in coeducational and single-sex secondary education, in M. Marshman, V. Geiger, & A. Bennison (Eds), Mathematics education in the margins, pp. 357-364. 2015. Accessed December 10, 2023. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED572489 

8. Ryan C. The attitudes of boys and girls towards science and mathematics as they progress through school in Australia. Melbourne Institute Working Paper No. 24/16. The University of Melbourne. August 2016. Accessed December 10, 2023. https://melbourneinstitute.unimelb.edu.au/publications/working-papers/search/result?paper=2156617 

9. Tran, KM. The role of performance and gender in subject, university degrees, and occupational choices. Honours Thesis, School of Economics, The University of Queensland. 2018. Accessed December 10, 2023. https://espace.library.uq.edu.au/view/UQ:721126 

10. Eisenkopf G, Hessami Z, Fischbacher U, Ursrung H. Academic performance and single-sex schooling: Evidence from a natural experiment in Switzerland. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization. 2015;115:123-143. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0167268114002236



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