Equality in STEM Education is now more important than ever

Apr 2, 2022 | STEM

There was a time when it was generally accepted that boys were better at math and science than girls. And, for the most part, this still holds true today. However, with the ever-growing importance of STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), we can no longer afford to have half of our population underrepresented in these fields. We need to make sure that our daughters have just as much opportunity to succeed in STEM as our sons do.

Four billion people on the planet use a mobile phone, only 3.5 billion people use a toothbrush[i].

In the past two years, 90% of all the world’s data has been generated.

NASA plans to set foot on Mars in the next 20 years, and driverless cars are on the roads.

The future is here, and it starts with a STEM Education

And in this time of futuristic development there are another set of statistics which Government and many academics are puzzling over. This year in the UK, we have a shortfall of over 173,000 workers in the STEM sectors. That’s Science Technology Engineering and Maths.

There are 173,000 vacancies in STEM sector jobs

There are simply not enough qualified people to fill the vacancies.

There are lots of theories why we don’t have enough graduates from STEM education—but one of the most striking, obvious truths – is the lack of women in STEM. The problem is often described as a “leaky pipeline”—let me explain:

The numbers of girls and boys studying maths and science at GSCE are similar, since these subjects are mandatory. But there are fewer girls represented in optional subjects such as ICT, computing and statistics. Then there is a massive drop off in the number of girls continuing to study STEM education beyond GSCE (35% of girls compared with 80% of boys).

At university level, 25% of graduates in STEM subjects are women.

Quote from Darwin, 1871, The Descent of Man

In the labour market, the proportion of professionals in core STEM occupations represented by women was 23% in 2017. [ii]

So this time when the demand for STEM skills is booming; where are all the women?

Caroline Kennard's letter to Darwin about gender equality in STEM Education

Well, I would like to share my thoughts with you and begin to unpick some of the background to what is an enormously complex issue.

Let me begin with the words of the Sociologist, Amartya Sen “gender inequality is not one homogeneous phenomenon, but a collection of disparate and interlinking problems”.

Perhaps we could start with Darwin.

In 1871 he wrote The Descent of Man. In there was this quote: “The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shown by man attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than woman can attain – whether requiring deep thought, reason or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands, man has ultimately become superior to woman.”

This set the atmosphere for science. Perhaps setting its trajectory for the next 100 years.

In 1990, primatologist Amy Parish wrote her dissertation on the socio-sexual behaviour of female bonobos. Parish’s theory that bonobos behaved in a matriarchy challenged the traditional evolutionary theory that our primate ancestors have always existed in male-dominated societies. In doing so she challenged Darwin’s famous claims that gender inequality is linked to biological differences that make women less intelligent.

The fact that evolutionary scientists have consistently ignored the significance of female animal behaviour until the 1990s is reflective of the fact that science is a highly male-dominated field and points towards our problem.

Angela Saini, Scientist and Author of Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong, examined the research claiming that brains come in two different forms determined by sex. According to Saini, the psychological differences – differences in mathematical reasoning, spatial awareness, performance in tests – between males and females are extremely small. They only happen at an individual level, and cannot be applied to an entire gender group. The differences are measured in standards of deviation; while the average standard of deviation in height between men and women in the UK is two, for example, the author explains that the standard of deviation in psychological differences is only a fraction of one.

Research actually shows that the gender inequality that we see in society and science is not matched by the psychological differences between men and women.

Experiences

In 1881 Caroline Kennard, a member of the women’s movement in Boston, wrote to Darwin she said “Let the ‘environment’ of women be similar to that of men and with his opportunities, before she be fairly judged, intellectually his inferior, please.”

Let’s take a look at further women’s engagement with STEM education. It wasn’t until 1948 that women could graduate from Cambridge University (men could graduate in 1209) and 1945 that they could become fellows of the Royal Society (men were made fellows from 1600).

Timeline of Women in STEM Education

 

Why we might ask are 93% of Children’s Care apprentices female? Well, we do not exist in a vacuum. When researching, the first thing I was taught was to examine and record my own internal bias. We are all products of society and in our society we are heavily marketing gender stereotypes to children. Every day. Through the books they read and the clothes they wear.

Encouragement in STEM Education

From early on, Waldorf parents are encouraged to foster an enthusiasm for STEM education in their children. That’s why Wilded Family has a wide selection of resources that cover numbers and maths, engaging the hands in learning and seeing how beautiful the patterns of each number. We aim to make Maths more human. Take a look at our products here: https://waldorffamily.com/collections/number-and-maths/ 

Culturally engrained stereotype discourages girls from STEM education subjects at an early age.

We show them as infants that science and investigation is for boys, that pink and care giving is for girls –In the playground girls are statistically twice as likely to be told not to climb, so as to not to hurt themselves. Meanwhile “boys will be boys” is still commonplace.

Research shows us girls under 6 put themselves on an equal footing to their male counterparts: but by 7 they begin to view the boys as “stronger”. In a research project, girls put boys into the “really, really smart” category—and wouldn’t put themselves in it. By 7 girls think of “Genius” as a male trait. Girls think that they are better at household chores.  By 14, this gap widens girls remove themselves from leadership and science—and by 17-21 we see a complete split—young people thinking that STEM areas are “boys subjects” and arts/English are “girls subjects”.

What we show children matters, we model all the time the norms that we expect children to conform to “across children’s media, only 19.5% of female characters have jobs or career aspirations compared with 80.5% of male characters.” Amelia Hill, The Guardian September 2017—we know in the primary years seeing is believing.

Creating a plurality of role models, not just historic figures but modern women in STEM, will help girls to understand that there are women out there like them, from whom they can draw great inspiration.

For me, it’s not only about career outcomes for children. It’s about setting up the stereotypes that limit every aspect of our species. According to the Study of Sociology, “A stereotype is a rigid, oversimplified, often exaggerated belief that is applied both to an entire social category of people and to each individual within it. Stereotypes form the basis for prejudice, which in turn is used to justify discrimination and attitudes.”

This sociological rhetoric translates into the daily play of my two girls. When my big girl comes home from school and tells me that she can’t wear her astronaut top because the other girls say it’s not ‘girlie’ (it’s dark green, not a light pastel) So all the astronaut stuff becomes a home activity, hidden away from her mates: because she so wants and needs to – at her young age to belong to the group.

Young children respond to gender stereotypes because they are ordering in their mind what it means to be a girl or a boy. It is a simplifying mechanism: ‘Pink is for girls, and I’m a girl, so I like pink,’ and those who don’t conform to these cultural expectations face real social sanctions, like bullying.

History and Social Conditioning

So let’s consider the scientific community specifically—but bearing in mind that enter all things with our social conditioning.

For 3000 year men have controlled the education, experiments and reporting of data. So perhaps we could rephrase the question: how could we not have, over time, created academic disciples that are inherently gender bias.

Michael Kimmel, an American sociologist. In his TED talk in 2015 recalled an encounter between two women. The first said—when you go to your bathroom and look in the mirror, what do you see? The second answered, “I see a women” and the first said “well when I go to the bathroom I see a black women”. Race is invisible to you, it is not present for you at all times. Kimmel asserts that at this moment, he really saw that privilege was invisible to those who have it.

I think that all too often men in science simply don’t see gender equality as their problem. Perhaps they themselves are not sexist—thus all must be well.

I would like you to consider this following research, published last month by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in the US. The study is by the University of Texas. It found that about 20% of women at undergraduate or postgraduate level in the sciences, 27% in engineering and 47% in medicine say they have been sexually harassed by members of staff or faculty.

Reports are showing us that the hierarchy, the working environment and the male-dominated culture of science, not only in universities but within specialist disciplines, make tackling sexual misconduct more complex and challenging than in other academic fields and industries.

I bring sexual misconduct to your attention because while the exodus of women in science as they climb the academic rungs is well known, experiences of sexual misconduct are rarely raised as a contributing factor.

At the same time that so much energy and money is being invested in efforts to attract and keep women in STEM education, it appears women are often bullied or harassed out of career pathways in these fields. Just like the bullying at school for the wearing the wrong colour.

This environment, this situation, creates a negative stereotype of science. “a bad reputation”.

I would ask you… if you knew of science with the reputation of long hours, isolation and late-night research was led by a powerful male dominated cleek – would you as a young women – who has been raised through cultural norms as we’ve discussed – would want to put yourself in a vulnerable position at the bottom of that road? Would you consider that science sounds like a nice path to travel?

STEM education isn't given the best reputation amongst children

So in conclusion: our brain are the same: some humans love science some humans love art, many love both. But women have only been fellows of the Royal Society for 73 years. We have only represented in high education in equal numbers since 1993. We don’t show our children women in science: only have 19.5% of children’s media shows women with a job.

We sell our children stereotypes.

It is easy to think with such an engrained problem that there is nothing we as individuals can do. But society in only made of individuals.

And I think we each have an answer to bring

For me the answer is storytelling. When we lived in the caves telling stories around fires the interpretation of male and female was filtered through our language: and one assumes reflected our lives. When we wrote these stories down in 16th century Germany we continued to weave our cultural bias into these pre-intellectual stories – at every stage or writing and rewriting if we have written and rewritten bias into the foundational stories we tell our children – how can we expect them to build anything but a bias society? I would ask you to consider what stories would we tell if we had lived in a matriarchal society? Would they have described women as property to be bought and sold and won?

We cannot achieve gender equality in STEM education for women and girls unless we engage boys and men. We need men to realise they will not lose if we all achieve equality. In fact we will all win.

I will leave you with one last story of why we must tackle the stereotypes which discourage women from science:  it is not just about the labour market. It is, far more importantly, about enabling diversity in technology and innovations.

Building a balanced society for tomorrow.

Some of you might know about the experiment that Boston University and Microsoft did in June 2017. They let a Machine learning algorithm – that is to say what we would call – Artificial intelligence – train on text collected from Google News for a month. They found that the AI reproduced all the gender biases well documented in humans. They asked software to complete the statement “Man is to computer programmer as woman is to X,” it replied, “homemaker.” Twitter and Facebook have had to delete numerous AI’s as they take on sexist a racist views.

These technologies are undertaking our stock market trades, deciding our insurance rates, they are predicting our spending and influencing what we see on our screens – so it has never been more critical to have gender equality in STEM.

I would ask you all to be brave, be brave and tell a new story. Wilded Family’s range of Number and Maths learning resources really allows children to engage with the beauty of maths. Take a look at our products: https://waldorffamily.com/collections/number-and-maths/

STEM Education inequality limits career aspirations

[i] Smithsonian, 2018

[ii] Statistics from WISE Campaign 2018

 

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