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Our schools are letting girls down.

“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.

“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.”

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.

Amanda Rishworth MP. Image via Facebook.

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.

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Left exposed to these subtle biases, of being made to feel an outsider in the science lab, of being treated as odd or out of place for showing an interest in science and maths, it is little wonder our girls more often than not believe the concept of a career in science and technology is not something to aspire toward.

“It is little wonder our girls more often than not believe the concept of a career in science and technology is not something to aspire toward.”

Never mind the woman this girl will become could have been our next Ruby Payne-Scott, a radio astronomer and pioneer responsible for some of the earliest discoveries in radio astronomy research, or Dorothy Hill, a geologist and researcher most famous for becoming the first professor at an Australian university.

When girls and women are conditioned to reject science and mathematics we all miss out; academically, socially and economically.

Of course the classroom is not the end, but the beginning of the systemic barriers girls and women face when it comes to science and maths. For those girls who defy the odds and leave school with a keen interest in all things STEM, they must again confront similar biases and barriers at university and in the workplace.

That is why I was pleased to launch, in conjunction with my parliamentary colleagues the SAGE Pilot of the Athena SWAN Charter this week.

Developed by the Academy of Science to support the hiring, promotion, participation and retention of women in STEM, the SAGE Initiative is designed to support the reaching of gender parity in science leadership. The absence of women scientists is a significant waste of talent and expertise and negatively impacts Australia’s scientific productivity.

“When girls and women are conditioned to reject science and mathematics we all miss out; academically, socially and economically.”

The Athena SWAN Charter will be a two-year pilot involving up to 20 Australian universities, medical research institutes and publicly-funded research agencies in establishing an evaluation and accreditation framework to help improve gender equity policies and practices.

As the co-convenor of the Parliamentary Friendship group of Women in Science, Mathematics and Engineering I am pleased to see the Academy of Science together with the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering take this important step that will make our scientific institutions gender equitable.

There is hope still that we can unlock the full potential of those young girls entering our classrooms for the first time next year, but it is the hard work we do now in building these young girls up while tearing down the subtle biases and barriers in the classroom that will pay dividends for science and mathematics in Australia for years to come.

Imagine a young girl stepping into any Australian classroom on her first day of school. Now imagine a world full of scientific and mathematical potential, just waiting for her.

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