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The Gender Divide in Science Education

By Joanna Sikora

While girls now match boys in their interest and ability in science, there remains a stark disparity in the subjects they select and the careers they pursue.

A recent report penned by analysts from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has gauged how high school students fare in 63 countries. The ABC of Gender Inequality in Education highlights areas in which girls do as well as boys and areas that are persistently divided by gender. The key message about science education is that while certain disparities have been bridged, others remain as gaping as ever.

Up to the 1990s adolescent girls underperformed in school science relative to boys. Analysts saw this gap as the key reason why girls showed comparatively little interest in science careers.

However, the 21st century witnessed a reversal in girls’ performance trends. In 2012, an OECD assessment of science competencies across the world revealed that 15-year-old girls were as good at science as their male peers. My research on the data, which was included in the OECD report, demonstrates that Australian youth of both genders take an equal interest in science careers, as do youth in many other countries.

Boys and girls, however, develop vocational interests in very different areas of science. Consequently, they flock into different subjects in high school. Career preferences and subject choices affect tertiary study which, in turn, determines employment. The OECD reports that only 14% of females at university in member countries pursue a degree in physics, mathematics, computing or engineering. This compares with 39% of males.

While this might not concern everyone, such a divide may discourage many talented young people from achieving their full potential if they feel reluctant to work in fields dominated by the other sex. As a result, society may be losing human creativity and productivity. Moreover, if science continues to be differentiated by gender, young adults who value equality may seek their future elsewhere.

Gender Divides in Science Career Preferences Do Not Change over Time

Science as a career choice appeals to one-third of Australian adolescents. In this group there are as many girls as boys. However, boys prefer careers in physical science, which includes engineering and computing, while girls feel more enthusiasm about working in biology, health, psychology or environment-related fields, which make up life science.

Figure 1 contrasts the career expectations of three student cohorts who turned 15 between 2003 and 2009. Over that time the gender divide in vocational goals showed no signs of abating. For each boy interested in a life science career there were two boys who planned future employment in physical science. Conversely, for each girl who expected to work in physical science, another four girls planned to work in life science.

Girls and Boys Choose Different Science Subjects at School

Subject selections in Year 12 mirror career plans made at a younger age (Fig. 2). Nevertheless, the two genders are more evenly represented across school courses. More than 50% of students study at least one science course in Year 12. Among them, similar proportions of boys select life and physical science subjects.

In contrast, girls prefer life science. More than 40% of girls study at least one subject in this area, while only a little more than 20% of girls study physical science, excluding mathematics.

Divides Continue in Tertiary Science

The Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth show that the gender gap remains at the tertiary level. While one-and-a-half times more women than men pursue qualifications in life science, men are five times as likely as women to study physical science, engineering, computing or mathematics.

This disparity is greater than the average of 39% men to 14% of women across the OECD. In Australia, gender divides in tertiary science reflect more closely the career plans of adolescents than their school science studies.

How to Bridge the Gender Gap in Science

Recent research suggests that closing the gender divide will require synchronised changes in student attitudes, in schools, homes and even labour markets. Isolated and fragmented interventions are unlikely to succeed.

Confidence in science ability

Some experts believe that raising girls’ confidence in their science skills will close the gap. Girls in many countries match or even outperform their male peers academically, yet they consistently report less belief in their abilities. Boys feel more confident in almost all of the 63 countries in which the OECD collects data.

Raising self-confidence in science will help more students to become engaged and stay interested. However, this will not necessarily lead students to specialise in fields of science that are traditionally stereotyped as being better suited for the other sex. Instead, we need concerted efforts to encourage not only more girls to take up engineering and computing but also more boys to take up nursing or veterinary science.

Parents as role models

Inspirational role models spark and sustain youth interest in science, and research shows that parents provide some of the most effective long-term inspirations.

For instance, the children of parents employed in science are more likely to pursue science themselves. In particular, the parent of the same gender often becomes a role model.

Yet, in Australia only 2% of adolescents have mothers working as engineers, computer scientists or mathematicians while five times as many fathers work in these fields. Likewise the gender ratio among parents working in life science favours mothers. Apart from that, the challenge is to get parents who are not science whizzes to support skills and interests of their offspring in areas that aren’t traditional for their gender.

Success in school science is the best predictor of adolescent aspirations to related careers. However, parents matter too. Parental support proves crucial when youth confidence wavers or setbacks occur at school.

Nevertheless, parents may inadvertently re-enforce stereotypical thinking about types of science that are “appropriate” for boys or girls. So far it is unclear how to best encourage parents to reflect on and address the latter issue.

Single-sex schooling is not the answer

A common view is that single-sex schools are best at enthusing girls about physics, computing and engineering. These schools apparently also steer boys towards fields that are not typical for their gender. Arguably, students in these schools do not feel pressure from peers of the opposite sex to act in accordance with gender norms. A cursory glance at data supports this perception, but more sophisticated research lends little support to such views.

Most single-sex schools in Australia are private or selective. In consequence, they cater to rather specific student groups. When one compares two girls (or boys) with similar family backgrounds and science performance histories, their chances of aspiring to a science career or tertiary degree are equal, regardless of whether they have attended a coeducational or a single-sex school. This warrants the need for extreme caution when extolling single-sex schools as a panacea for gender stereotypes in science education.

What the Future Holds

Bridging the gender divides in science will be difficult. It will require significant changes in values and perceptions held not just by students, parents and teachers but also by employers and others in society. Without such changes, many young men and women will continue to select themselves out of science fields that predominantly employ the other sex, and therefore will miss out on realising their full potential.

Joanna Sikora is a sociologist in the School of Sociology at the Australian National University. She co-authored a consultancy report that was one of the sources for The ABC of Gender Inequality in Education released by the OECD earlier this year.