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Two girls observing chemicals
Why aren’t girls studying STEM?

In a society full of feminist movements, advocates for equal rights and a strong sense of ‘girl power’, why do Aussie girls not want to be ‘girl bosses’ in STEM? In a report developed by Deakin University and the University of Melbourne, Girls’ Future – Our Future, researchers found Aussie girls have one of the lowest rates of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) involvement in the Western world.

Co-author of the report, Chair in Science Education and Alfred Deakin Professor at Deakin University, Professor Russell Tytler, explains that ‘What it is to be “a girl” and how girls are encouraged to be part of the world is constrained and directed by cultural stereotyping and experiences from an early age.’

So why exactly do girls to feel shy about pursuing studies in STEM, and what can be done about it?

Aren’t STEM subjects just for boys?

Despite the attempt to abolish the concept of gender specific toys, brands, ideas, even colours, girls still associate the world of maths with boys. Girls’ Future – Our Future also found girls as young as six draw this association, which Prof. Tytler says is just an example of the ‘deeply embedded’ gender bias in our cultural expectations and traditions.

A report published by the Office of the Chief Scientist found there is actually no gender difference in mathematics ability. The report also revealed that in science subjects, girls at primary and secondary levels have equal, and often greater, success rates compared to their male peers.

School of Education researcher Dr Linda Hobbs also co-authored Girls’ Future – Our Future. She acknowledges that a female’s experience of craft, homemaking and overall creativity is a common reason that girls are deterred from following a STEM pathway. One of the most common misconceptions of studying STEM is that the subjects lack creativity.

But as Dr Hobbs notes, ‘creativity is fundamental to good science… creative solutions to complex problems is the greatest contribution of the STEM subjects.’

'What it is to be “a girl” and how girls are encouraged to be part of the world is constrained and directed by cultural stereotyping and experiences from an early age.'

Professor Russell Tytler,
Deakin University

Why is gender equity so important?

Establishing a balance of male and female involvement in the STEM industry is vital to nurturing an environment of equal opportunities and economic empowerment among women. But it is becoming apparent that the gendered experiences of young children are having a direct impact on young children’s self-worth and ability when it comes to subjects deemed to be dominated by a certain gender.

According to Dr Hobbs the low representation of girls in physics and advanced mathematics is the most problematic. These subjects are considered ‘enabling’ STEM subjects that open up tertiary and career opportunities in the field of science, yet have the lowest female representation at a VCE level.

A sense of gender equality will encourage girls to experience success in STEM as well as ‘fail, rethink and redesign’, says Dr Hobbs. A gender-balanced environment is crucial from early exposure through to tertiary studies, and will give girls the opportunity to see growth in their skills and knowledge.

What can be done?

A concerted effort from parents, teachers, guardians and carers is needed to create a positive and gender-neutral view of STEM, says Dr Hobbs. The promotion of female role models making strides in the field of STEM will also show girls that success is achievable, and build confidence in their ability to succeed.

Boosting the female representation across STEM subjects won’t happen overnight, but removing the stigma of science and numbers being male dominated fields is the first step in showing Aussie girls they can be ‘girl bosses’ in this field too.

Dip your toes into the world of STEM and you may find studies in science, tech, engineering or maths could be the key to taking your studies to the next level toward your dream career.

Want to know how to promote women in STEM? Check out Deakin’s Graduate Certificate of STEM Education.

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Professor Russell Tytler
Professor Russell Tytler

Alfred Deakin Professor and Chair in Science Education, Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University

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Dr Linda Hobbs
Dr Linda Hobbs

Senior Lecturer in Education, Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University

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