“When girls and women are conditioned to reject science and mathematics we all miss out; academically, socially and economically.”
Imagine a young girl stepping into any Australian classroom on her first day of school.
Nervous, impressionable and eager to learn. She doesn’t know yet what there is to learn and discover. And she certainly doesn’t know what she wants to be when she’s older, or how to get there even if she does.
But what she should expect along with every girl in every Australian school is complete encouragement in classroom learning, free from the subtle biases and barriers that slowly, over time, turn many girls away from an interest in science and mathematics.
Subtle biases and barriers in the classroom are deterring girls from taking an interest in science and maths from an early age, a phenomena that in part at least correlates to the underrepresentation of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) at university and beyond.
These barriers could be the expectations of teachers, parents and peers deterring girls from taking an interest in science.
Or they could be the lack of female role models in the STEM disciplines or the presence of stereotypes portrayed in the media which make it so hard for girls to imagine a career in STEM.
Recent research has determined some teachers mark boys’ primary school maths tests more favourably than girls, impacting the overall uptake of advanced science and mathematics subjects in high school.
This research, conducted by Victor Lavy and Edith Sand, followed close to 3,000 students from years 6 to 12. In measuring unconscious bias, they compared the year 6 test results given by teachers who knew the students sex and compared these with external test marks for the same students given by teachers who did not know each student’s gender.
Worryingly, this research concluded that boys were given higher marks than that of girls of the same ability.
Lavy and Sand also looked at the long term consequences of preconceived expectations in the classroom, concluding that the way year 8 students rate their abilities in science and maths has a direct correlation as to how likely they are to go on to undertake and earn a STEM degree.
It has been observed that when these subtle biases and preconceived expectations are controlled and removed from the classroom, the participation of girls in science and mathematics increases to be almost parallel with that of boys.
I know from my own experience as a young woman in high school of feeling satisfied with a low physics score. I wonder now how accurately that score reflected my ability as a science student or if perhaps I was merely living up to expectations.
Addressing this concerning trend would help readjust the participation of girls in STEM disciplines into high school, university and eventually, the workplace.