Girls in STEM carry the weight of gender prejudice. Picture credit: The Conversation
Psychologist Professor Stoet’s 2018 study, “The Gender-Equality Paradox in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education”, challenges our conventional understanding of gender inequality in education, indicating that in gender unequal societies, girls are relatively motivated to continue STEM education, but in more gender equal societies, girls’ relative strengths in reading are shooting them in the foot in terms of self-perception of their abilities in science, despite being at least equal to and sometimes ahead of boys. This is causing them to be signposted away from STEM even with increased opportunities available, while boys, who are no better able and sometimes less able, are being signposted towards STEM, by teachers and parents who haven’t caught up to understand that girls have a full colour palette of strengths. Worse, even when girls are able to identify their personal academic strength as science and for whom their performance also indicates it as a strength, they are still not taking up university study in STEM.
Recently, I was fortunate to discuss the results of Professor Stoet’s study with Kathleen O’Hara, an author and psychotherapist. O’ Hara has spoken twice at the United Nations International Day for Women and Girls in Science, on the Global Mental Health Issues of Women and Girls, and The Psychological Impact of Media Stereotypes on Women and Girls in Science. She feels that “media stereotypes reinforce or impose a preferred choice of careers, and females looking at male-dominated environments may feel more camaraderie in other fields. If the media create female led characters in STEM, this could change but the isolation girls might feel in STEM means they may need extra motivations to break the cycle; for example, a strong role model at home.’
Locating the source of girls’ lack of confidence in science, O’Hara notes that: “trauma is passed down generations culturally in terms of STEM” due to the dissociating notion that science is a male field. “We need to challenge notions that girls are irrational, whereas science is rational, and that therefore girls aren’t equal to the task of science. Science had to fight against ignorance, so traditionally ‘rational’ males dominated it; change is coming in every other area and science is the last field to go. We need to make STEM open to girls. Science has separated itself from anything soft or human, so it can be seen as ‘purely scientific’. You end up with stereotypes. We need to present the integration of arts and science; the two are linked in humanity.”
As more people adopt the model of a whole person (mental, physical, emotional, and also spiritual), this O’ Hara feels, is finally opening discussion, issues are being explored, and girls and women are talking about their experiences and processing them more. Nonetheless, she highlights, “we still have a big battle to fight to achieve collective support for girls. The lack of support wears girls down so we need to change the perspective of every girl to understand that girls in STEM bring a vital gift to humanity. We need to start this message from early on in a girl’s life, and parents need to demand equality and not put more pressure on girls.” She believes platforms such as RASIT’s Girls in Science, can help girls “gain confidence and communicate with each other”, adding: “women and girls are relational, so working in a lab on their own, without a mentor, causes isolation and anxiety. If offered mentorship, a collective group of women and girls, can be empowered. There is strength in numbers”.
We have a long way to go to achieve gender parity and wellbeing for all genders globally, especially in STEM, but researchers are invested in exploring the issues, experts are keen to elucidate how we might frame the problems we wish to solve, women and girls are talking, and as youth we are engaged to bring momentum to solving this issue. Please join in with your thoughts!