Gender gap widens in STEM education

A teacher gives a seminar to student nurses in a lecture theatre
Copyright: Panos

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  • Girls tend to drop out of science programmes at the higher education levels
  • Social, cultural and gender norms are responsible for high attrition rates
  • Girls outperform boys in Arab nations possibly because of single-sex classrooms

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[BANGKOK] Despite major strides in women’s empowerment and equality over the last half century, there exists a stark gender gap in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, says a report. 

According to the report by the UNESCO (UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) report, only 17 women have won a Nobel Prize in physics, chemistry or medicine since Marie Curie’s in 1903. In comparison, there have been 572 male Nobel laureates during that period. Currently, only 28 per cent of the world’s researchers are women.
The report was presented at STEM conference in Thailand last month (28—30 August).

“Such deep inequalities are the result of a wide range of factors, starting with social, cultural and gender norms.”

Irina Bokova, UNESCO

UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova said that “such deep inequalities are the result of a wide range of factors, starting with social, cultural and gender norms that influence how girls and boys are brought up, how they interact with family, friends, teachers and the wider community which shape their identity, behaviour and choices.”

Bokova said that, in many countries, girls are held back by discrimination, biases, social norms and expectations that influence the quality of education they receive and the subjects they study, which likely contributed to why girls appear to lose interest in STEM subjects particularly between early and late adolescence.

The conference, which provided a global snapshot of the disadvantages girls are facing in STEM studies and careers, heard that gender gaps in STEM education participation become more pronounced in higher education.

Female students represent only 35 per cent of students enrolled in STEM-related fields. Female students’ enrolment is particularly low in ICT (three per cent), natural science, mathematics and statistics (five per cent) and engineering, manufacturing and construction (eight per cent).

The UNESCO report also said that aside from low female participation in STEM education and employment, the attrition rates are high. Women leave STEM disciplines in disproportionate numbers, while in the midst of higher education studies or professional work, to pursue other careers.

The report also highlighted significant regional and national variations in science and mathematics achievement. For instance, it pointed out that the largest score difference in boys’ favour was observed in the Republic of Korea (11 points), with a similar pattern in other countries in Asia and Europe.

Interestingly, the largest difference in girls’ favour was in Saudi Arabia (79 points), with a similar pattern observed in other Arab countries. The report could not provide a definitive explanation but noted a similar trend in non-STEM subjects, with young women doing better than young men. A possible interpretation could be that the single-sex learning environments of the region allow girls greater time for teacher interaction.

Malaysia, cited as a model country that has achieved gender parity in STEM with 57 per cent of of its science degrees held by women, has partnered with UNESCO to share its expertise to promote gender-responsive STEM education in the global south — particularly in Cambodia and Vietnam, and in African countries of Kenya and Nigeria.

Tan Sri Khair Bin Mohamad, Malaysia’s director-general of education, said improving outcomes will involve putting specific policy measures on STEM education such as teacher capacity-building, motivating girls to select STEM, development of contextualised gender-sensitive guidelines on curricula, legislation promoting gender equality, and specific measures for the advancement of women.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.