Female Participation in STEM Based
Never has there been an issue regarding the academic potential of women, however, their participation in STEM based subject post Key Stage 4 has always been a problem resulting in extensive research. There are many reasons for this trend in participation, such as those that are discussed by Hill, Corbett & St. Rose (2010), that all provide some contribution to the reasoning. The ones which are deemed the most prominent, and have the biggest effect are discussed as well as the history behind how they came forward. Although the topic area has been heavily researched, there is not as much conflict as might have been expected. Differences seem to occur in the eye of the beholder and an individual’s take on the situation.
Since the issue of female participation has been present since at least the 1960’s, where feminism was largely an issue through to the mid 1980’s, there has been a number of initiatives set up to counter this. An early journal such as that of Timperley, S.R. & Gregory, A. (1971), suggests and shows gender differences but fails to take this any further. They relate a lack of science teachers, and excess of female Arts and Language teachers to simply just give some cause for concern. However with recent research such as that done by Beaton, A. et al (2007) regarding the effects of stereotype threat, can potentially be linked to the classical stereotype of a Math or Science created that has been created historically.
The initiatives that have been set up are pushing to try and get more numbers into further education of STEM based subjects. All age bands are being targeted, from KS1 up to KS4 and beyond, in an attempt to broaden female participation and create role models for women. One such initiative is Women in Science, Engineering and Technology (WiSET), who work with women of all ages and backgrounds and at all levels of STEM. Details can be found at the WiSET website at < http://www.wiset.org.uk/index.php>.
Whether these initiatives are producing a change in current trends of participation levels is something that can be debated. Perhaps the most comprehensive argument for this is too look at virtually raw data that can be obtained from the Joint Council for Qualifications and analyzing the trend female participants in STEM based subjects over a period of years. This is an area that can also give an insight toward the future of women in STEM, and suggest how things need to change if at all.
The first part in assessing female participation is to find out a where we are now, and where we have come from. By doing this it enables you figure a correlation to see whether female participation is declining or whether it is growing.
According to Results from the Joint Council for Qualification (2009), there were 29,420 female entries to the A-Level Mathematics examinations in June. Considering that there were just over 40,000 male entries, there is still quite a gap between them. When considering the case of Physics, what is considered a traditionally male domain as suggested by Arnot, M., David, M., Weiner, G. (1999), the gap is considerably larger. A mere 6538 females were entered for the examinations, 16,300 less than their male counterparts. Despite the difference, a sheer lack of females studying Physics post KS4 causes considerable alarm. For Chemistry, the numbers are relatively equal and there are actually significantly more females than males in Biology (8000). There are over 3000 more males than females in Technology subjects.
Moving on from where we are now, it is clear to see that the big differences lie in what are deemed as the more Mathematical fields. To see whether this has been the trend over the last few years and also to assess whether a change is being brought about, we look at Appendix 1. This is a collection of data taken from the JCQ from the last 10 years. The chosen data is taken from 5 STEM based subjects from A levels (not including AS level), Further Math’s was not included. Appendix 1 shows that more girls are gradually taking up technology subject and the difference is becoming less. The difference in Mathematics decreased to a low point of 12,000, but has since increased slightly. This is still 4000 less than 10 years ago. This may seem misleading however as in comparison over the 10 years, there amount of girls entering Math’s is increasing up to a recent high of 29,000. Physics still seems a cause for concern as the number of girls participating seems to have plateau and is stuck around the 6,000 mark. Similarly with Chemistry and Biology, the number of female entrants seems to be consisting, and it is actually male entrants that are on the increase.
In terms of results, the situation is quite different. Appendix 2 shows that on the whole, girl’s results are slightly better than their opposite sex. Arguably this could be related to the lesser numbers (particularly in Physics and Math’s). This is something that is discussed in the next part.
Reasons for Current Trend
Many researchers have come up with their theories as to why there has been such a slow uptake of women in STEM subjects. A large number of these relate to three main points, these being Stereotyping, Self-Assessment and Beliefs about Intelligence.
Research by Campbell, P. B. and Storo. J. N (1994), on the common myth that girls are not as good at math than boys, shows evidence that there is almost a complete overlap on average results of girls as there is with boys. This is backed up by more recent results that are shown in Appendix 2. However, this myth seems to be a hard one to shake. The work of Dweck. C (2007), in her research on the apparent differences that a growth and a fixed mindset can have on both participation levels and results, shows evidence that females with a fixed mindset are likely to believe that this math is an inherent ability, and if they are not good at it from the outset, then this is unlikely to change. According to Dweck’s work, females with a growth mindset believe that with hard work and effort, they can become better through challenging themselves to be better. Therefore, with a growth mindset, historical myths can be overcome and females can prevent being influenced by these myths and stereotypes.
The issue therefore becomes as to whether women in science are in an environment promoting a growth mindset at an early enough age, if at all. In Dweck’s continued research, she found that in a classroom, or indeed a lecture theatre, where negative messages are sent out, those with a fixed mindset can quite quickly lose interest. Similarly in a classroom where the work is challenging, females who believe that intellectual-ability is a gift, suffer in grades. Work by Grant and Dweck (2003) shows this in their study of a first semester of a pre-med chemistry course. Interestingly, this study shows that for the females who believed their intellectual ability could be developed, actually outperformed their opposite sex.
Mueller and Dweck (1998) showed that the solution is not quite as simple. It is easy to think that sending out positive messages and praising when work is done well, especially when facing a challenge will boost confidence and make them think they have ‘high ability’. However this is not the case. All this creates an individual (female in this case), that believes their ability to be a gift, and makes them unwilling to tackle challenges that pose a risk of failure. As a result there is likely to be a loss in confidence and a loss of interest in pursuing the subject. Therefore, if this is not the answer, then even further studies by Good, Aronson and Inzlicht (2003) show that in a test case study where a group of females were taught whereby it was expressed that (in this case) Math ability can be developed, when compared to a control group they outperformed them in results.
Stereotypes in STEM are another cause for concern. Negative stereotypes affect a women’s belief in their intelligence, and makes them more conscious about how they are perceived by others. Farenga and Joyce (1999) show in the work that as early as primary school, students are exposed to these stereotypes and are already being influenced for their academic choices later in life. The effect if stereotype threat has been found by Nguyen and Ryan (2008) amongst others, to have a negative effect on girl’s aspirations and performance in STEM. Their research shows that even those women that believe themselves to be good in STEM can be affected by stereotypical views. Joshua Aronson has contributed many items of research into the field of stereotyping. In particular, his combined work with Good and Harder (2008), provide conclusive evidence that the effects of stereotype threat aren’t limited to those at the lower end of the ability, but also affects those at the top of end of the ability distribution.
The common stereotype of a scientist, that the majority of students would draw, would be a white male man in a lab coat. The key word here is male. There is an interesting article on this and other myths regarding women in STEM by Live Science (2007) < http://www.livescience.com/health/070827_girls_math.html>, highlights this and notes how any female drawing of a scientist portray the scientist as very severe and unhappy. It is found that the persistence of these stereotypes are in fact turning girls off STEM, and by the time students are 14 years of age, there are twice as many boys that like STEM than girls.
Another reason for the gender difference that has led to invested interest is the idea of Self-Assessment. By this, there is the idea that the difference seems worse simply because males believe they are better at STEM subjects and are therefore more likely to continue education. Sociologist Shelley Correll’s research shows how female careers in STEM are influenced by the belief that Science and Math’s are male domains. Correll (2001) looks at how cultural beliefs about gender bias individual opinions of their abilities in STEM. The study finds that males assess their ability to be generally higher than that of women. It also goes on to show that the higher the perceived ability an individual has of themselves, there is an increased likelihood of them persisting in STEM subjects and careers.
The further work of Ridgeway and Correll in 2004 continues with the idea of Math’s and Science being a historically male domain. The study shows that the belief of STEM being a male dominated domain contributes to men’s higher self assessment of themselves. On the positive side, the research also shows that it is possible to change this trend. This can be done by altering their historical beliefs, and creating an environment promoting women in STEM.
Evidence clearly shows that there is a gender difference in STEM, but it does show that the trend of this is changing. From as early as post World War it has been noted that STEM fields are typically male dominated and it is questionable as to whether this will ever change. Inroads are being made to close the gap between men and women and the in-depth research, of which only a selection I have discussed, is giving good direction and analysis to try and make the change.
The underlying theme of the research points towards historical views of women in STEM and also women teachers. It seems that women are brought up with this view of STEM being a male domain, and seem to just settle. It has been shown is some of the papers mentioned earlier that at a young age roughly equal amounts of girls and boys enjoy STEM subjects. This begs for the conclusion that the lack of women continuing STEM must be related to nurture and the beliefs that are portrayed to them. If this is the case then surely by creating an environment promoting girls in STEM from an early enough age, or even later on, the gender gap can be decreased. At a young age women (and men), look for role models and can be heavily influenced by stereotypes. If the traditional stereotype of a scientist is of a male, then women are unlikely to follow this.
Stereotyping, Self Assessment and Beliefs about intelligence prove to arguably be the most common reasons for the trend. Research papers on all three of these areas show strong links and common themes between them. Such as the face that girls are exposed to historical views at an early age which then stays with through to later on in their educational careers, influencing their choices.
As a result of all the investigations into gender differences, there is a clear direction to go to bring about change. There are initiatives out there such as the previously mentioned Women in Science Engineering and Technology. Initiatives like this are going to great lengths to create role models in Science, and create partnerships with large organizations committed to ‘Promoting change…. Broadening horizons’, as the WiSET slogan says.
Arnot, M., David, M., Weiner, G. 1999. Closing the Gender Gap: Postwar Education and Social Change. Polity Press: Cambridge
Beaton, A., Tougas, F., Rinfret, N., Huard, N. and Delisle, M.N. 2007. Strength in NumbersWomen and Mathematics. European Journal of Psychology of Education. 22, pp 290-310.
Campbell, P. B. and Storo. J. N. 1994. Girls are… Boys are…: Myths, Stereotypes and Gender Differences. Office of Educational Research and Improvement: US
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Top 5 Myths About Girls, Maths and Science, LiveScience. 2007. Live Science Staff, US. Accessed 23/04/2010.
Women in Science, Engineering and Technology. 2008. Centre for Science Education, Sheffield. Accessed 19/04/2010. < http://www.wiset.org.uk/index.php>