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How do we get more women in science?​

There are some serious impediments to women's involvement in science. Recent research provides insight into what is going on, which in turn helps us to identify the steps we can take to reverse the pattern. So, what can be done to tip the balance? 

From the age of three, children have learned traditional associations between gender and job roles.  I experienced that first hand recently when a 3 and a half year old pointed to a major hardware store and claimed, “That’s where boys go to get their hammers and nails.” How did that happen? (His mother is an engineer and his father a stay-at-home dad).

Gender roles create this focus at very early ages. They orient boys to explore the physical world, find out how things work, and grow their interest in problem-solving, status and financial gain. On the other hand, girls are oriented towards being socially skilled and helpful, to have a primary concern for family and to emphasise activities that are relationship-based.

Alarmingly, in primary school, parents have lower expectations for their daughters’ maths and science abilities than for their sons. Girls’ efforts are attributed to their conscientiousness and hard work while boys' efforts are attributed to innate talent. On average, mothers apply gender stereotypes about STEM more than fathers do, and mothers’ support is a stronger predictor of adolescent girls’ motivation to persist in STEM.

It is no wonder then that six to nine year old girls have implicit beliefs that maths and science are associated with boys and believe that they are not as good at maths as boys. These beliefs not only far exceed any actual performance differences but precede differences in test scores.

Implicit, unconscious maths-gender stereotypes are a better predictor of girls’ academic self-belief, academic achievement, and enrolment preferences than the beliefs they express. What you see is not necessarily what you get. Implicit gender stereotypes are an important factor in the dropout of female students from fields that rely on maths.

Recent data in the US shows that boys’ and girls’ grades in high school science and maths are equal. In Australia in 2007, there was no difference in the achievement of girls and boys in Year 4, but there was in Year 8, where boys out-achieve girls in both maths and science. This suggests that gender stereotypes about STEM may be much stronger in Australia than in the US (although it would be good to access more recent data).

In a 2010 study, high school science teachers spent an average 39 per cent more time addressing boys in class (not explained by student initiation), identified boys exclusively to pursue a career in science, and described boys as smart and curious, and girls as hard-working and conscientious. There was a contradiction between the teachers' explicitly stated beliefs that they were not biased and their implicit beliefs. The science teachers’ implicit beliefs, their classroom practices and the gendered motivational patterns of their students were consistent.

Besides the impact of classroom engagement, girls’ decisions to pursue STEM subjects and take advanced classes are influenced by how well their female friends performed in these classes in the previous year. How well male friends performed had no impact. Collaboration in the classroom is a particularly important element affecting girls’ decisions to pursue STEM. Where there is a stronger collaboration environment, girls show more interest, achieve better grades and express stronger aspirations. And again, most of this is operating at the implicit level.

Girls’ motivation to pursue studies and careers in maths and sciences diminishes as they finish high school and they are much less likely to enrol in STEM degrees. There remains a gender bias in fields of study at university, with many more young men studying science, IT and engineering related subjects, and women predominating in fields such as health, education and the arts.

More women than men transfer out of STEM majors at university, narrowing the field even further. One of the reasons for this may be that when women are solo, their sense of belonging and confidence decreases. Their performance erodes. They may feel isolated and dissatisfied with their work environment.

Engagement with teachers during university degrees has a major impact on young women. Women express more positive implicit attitudes to maths, show more positive identification with the subject, increase their effort on difficult tests and feel more confident of their ability when they: 

1.    Engage with advanced female peers with expertise in STEM
2.    Are exposed to biographies of influential female engineers
3.    Have female professors with whom they can identify.

This does not occur when they engage with male professors, or are exposed to male biographies. Even where the female students outperform their fellow male students, they were less confident about their performance when they engaged with male role models. When they had female professors, girls spoke up more in class and were much more likely to ask for help from their professors outside of class.

A further consideration is girls’ apparent preference for taking an applied perspective. STEM subjects tend to be downplayed for their real-world problem-solving value. Dasgupta and Stout (2014) suggest that increasing the social, service and collaboration elements of STEM would lead to greater engagement by girls.

An emerging area of research that has a big potential to remedy the challenges of studying science is being explored by Nilanjana Dasgupta, who has found that female majority groups have a big impact on female first-year science students. Women participate more, have increased confidence, feel more positively challenged and have higher career aspirations. This effect is particularly pronounced in their first year and tapers off after that.  

Recognition of the need for more effort here comes through BHP Billiton’s recent $22m support for increasing participation in maths, which includes funding a career awareness campaign aimed at girls. As CEO Andrew McKenzie says, “Any increase in STEM participation is good news but an increase in female representation is especially valuable because of the undeniable benefits of diversity.”

Salary differences are apparent very soon after starting work. Three years following graduation, Australian men with a postgraduate degree have a median annual salary of $96,000, while women’s is $80,000. The highest salaries are in engineering and management – for women median salaries were $96,000 in engineering and $90,000 in management while for men, median salaries were $100,000 in engineering and $110,000 in management. Even in traditionally female dominated areas, such as health and education, men are paid more.

A number of factors impede women scientists’ early career advancement, even when they have the same qualifications as male scientists. Male and female faculty make biased hiring decisions, preferring male candidates over female candidates. Male candidates are seen as more competent, more worthy of mentoring and deserving of a higher salary than female candidates. Letters of recommendation show similar bias. Recommendations for males emphasise research skills, publications and career aspirations whereas teaching skills, practical clinical skills and personal attributes are more often identified for females.

How to get, and keep, more women in science

At home – expose young children to gender vanguards, minimising gender stereotyping

At school – expose girls to STEM fields, build their confidence in their capabilities and talent, highlight the applied value of STEM

At university – cluster female science students so that they learn in female majority cohorts

At work, early-career – make salary and role complexity transparent and equal, conduct blind reviews of applications and evaluations

At work, mid-career – implement work-life balance actions, focus on women’s development needs, manage workplace culture.

This may feel like a long litany of problems, but it is just the same problem manifesting in a number of different ways. Central to the challenge is the same issue: implicit or unconscious gender beliefs. Implicit beliefs affect decisions we make for our daughters, our sisters, our colleagues and ourselves. Whether or not girls are supported, encouraged and successful in STEM is largely based on implicit gender associations that link women with family and men with careers, and women with the humanities and men with science.

Dr Karen Morley is a thought leader on gender balance and inclusive leadership. Dr Morley’s book, Gender Balanced Leadership: An Executive Guide, will help you increase the number of senior women in your organisation.

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