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Brief: How Can We Encourage Girls and Young Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math?
Girls and boys starting school are equally good at math, yet by age 15, boys begin to outperform girlsFootnote 1. This shift may limit girls' post-secondary education and career choices.
Young women continue to dominate traditional fields of study such as education and nursing, which lead them into careers where their earnings are lower than in male dominated onesFootnote 2.
"The odds of a female child enrolled in 1st grade going on to receive a Ph.D. in the sciences or engineering are approximately 1 in 286 (the odds for a boy are 1 in 167). Today, in an average-sized Canadian elementary school, only 1 child will go on to receive that Ph.D., and it is likely to be a boy."Footnote 3
Traditional gender roles continue
- The majority of girls and boys still make educational and career choices based on what they think is appropriate for their gender.
- Science and technology are still widely regarded as male domains and negative stereotypes about girls and women in these fields persist. For example, girls believe boys dislike girls who excel in physics.Footnote 4
- At the same time, young women's and men's employment paths also serve to perpetuate traditional gender roles.
- Girls and young women continue to choose traditionally female post-secondary educational programs such as nursing or education, and are less likely to enrol in science, technology, engineering or math.Footnote 5
- Studies show girls are particularly likely to "develop a belief that they cannot pursue particular occupations because they perceive them as inappropriate for their gender."Footnote 6
- Negative stereotyping – e.g., "girls are bad at math" – can lead to performance anxiety and poor outcomes. Strong performers seeking to challenge negative stereotypes may, in fact, be more susceptible to "stereotype threat"Footnote 7 and may experience greater stress during exams as a result.Footnote 8
- A study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development notes that Canadian boys "demonstrate better performance at mastering scientific knowledge whereas girls demonstrate better performance at seeing the larger picture that enables them to identify scientific questions that arise from a given situation."Footnote 9
- The same study also found that girls have significantly more negative perceptions regarding mathematics, which may influence their choice of study and career – [a]fter controlling for mathematics performance, girls reported:
- lower levels of confidence in their ability to solve specific mathematical problems;
- lower levels of perceived ability to learn mathematics;
- and higher levels of anxiety in dealing with mathematics. Footnote 10
- The study also found that girls believed math would be less relevant for their careers; enjoyed it less; and demonstrated less interest in it.Footnote 11
Girls' and young women's post-secondary education and careers
- Young women represent the majority of enrollees in traditionally female apprenticeships and are under-represented in traditionally male ones. For example, in 2010, females represented approximately 94% of those enrolled as early childhood educators and assistants and just 3.16% of those enrolled as electricians.Footnote 12
- In 2008, only 22% of graduates of architecture, engineering and related services programs were women (a small increase from 18% in 1990). In mathematics, computer and information sciences programs, 30% of graduates were women, slightly down from 35% in 1990.Footnote 13
- Most women still work in traditionally female occupations. In 2012, 81.24% of those employed in health occupations were women, and almost 92% of those were childcare and home support workers.Footnote 14
- Among professionals in natural and applied sciences and related occupations, such as engineering, physics and chemistry, women are still very much in the minority. In 2012, just 21.6% of professionals in these fields were women.Footnote 15
How do we encourage girls and young women to participate in science, technology, engineering and math?
- Start young. Girls need to be engaged early to develop their interest and skills in these areas.Footnote 16
- Broad-based encouragement. Parents, educators, community organizations and industry need to challenge stereotypes and provide encouragement.Footnote 17
- Mentorship and role models. Girls need to meet, learn from and aspire to become women working in science, technology, engineering and math fields if they are to challenge stereotypes and explore their potential.Footnote 18
- Hands-on opportunities. Girls need exposure to new ideas and activities if they are to consider new, non-traditional occupations.Footnote 19
For more information, see Girls Action Foundation (2013) Beyond Appearances: Brief on the Main Issues Facing Girls in Canada. Available at: girlsactionfoundation.ca/en/beyond-appearances-brief-on-the-main-issues-facing-girls-in-canada
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