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Key Findings: Cracking the Code: Girls’ and Women’s Education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)

‘Cracking the code: Girls’ and Women’s Education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics’: Key Findings

Key Findings: Cracking the Code: Girls’ and Women’s Education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)

Tremendous strides have been made in narrowing the gender gap in education in recent decades, with millions of girls and women previously shut out of learning opportunities altogether now exercising their fundamental right to education and thriving in the pursuit. However, beyond the head count, severe gender inequalities still persist for those already in school. Gender stereotypes and biased attitudes compromise the quality of the learning experience for female students and limit their education choices. This is a particular concern in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects, where girls are seriously under-represented. STEM fields drive the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, enabling innovative solutions to current and future challenges. There can be no peaceful and lasting development unless girls and women have equal access to education that can fuel their dreams and enable them to contribute to the better world we all desire.

UNESCO’s publication, Cracking the Code: Girls’ and Women’s Education in STEM, which will be released during the upcoming International Symposium and Policy Forum on the same topic, provides an in-depth look at the challenges resulting in low participation, learning achievement and progression for girls and women in STEM and possible solutions. Here are some highlights from the report:

What is the overall status of girls in education?

Despite advances in getting girls into school, significant gender disparities persist. Socio-economic, cultural and other obstacles still prevent female learners from completing or benefiting fully from good quality education of their choice in many settings.

So what are the barriers?Not only do girls have fewer initial educational opportunities, but there are systemic impediments at every step that push them out of STEM fields.

  • For many countries, there is concern not only about too few girls attending school, but the limited educational pathways available for those that do step into the classroom. Girls are significantly under-represented in STEM subjects in many settings.
  • Girls appear to lose interest in STEM subjects as they get older, particularly between early and late adolescence. The gender gap in STEM becomes particularly apparent in upper secondary education, as reflected in girls’ choices of advanced studies in mathematics and science.
  • Gender gaps become stark in higher education. Female students represent only 35% of all students enrolled in STEM-related fields of study globally.
  • Women continue to drop out of STEM disciplines in disproportionate numbers during their higher education studies, while transitioning to the world of work and even during their career cycle.

What is the role of socialization in these trends, and to what extent do girls and women internalize negative stereotypes?

  • Girls’ disadvantage in STEM is a result of multiple and overlapping factors embedded in both the socialisation and learning processes. These include social, cultural and gender norms, which influence the way girls and boys are brought up, learn and interact with parents, family, friends, teachers and the wider community. These influences are a powerful force in shaping their identity, beliefs, behaviour and choices.
  • Girls are often brought up to believe that STEM subjects are “masculine” topics and that female ability in STEM is innately inferior to that of males. While research on biological factors belies any factual basis for such beliefs, they persist and undermine girls’ confidence, interest and willingness to engage in STEM subjects.

How can we help girls and women understand that gender stereotypes are artificial constructs and that studies and careers in STEM are open to them?

  • Education systems and schools play a central role in determining girls’ interest in STEM subjects and in providing equal opportunities to access and benefit from quality STEM education. Teachers, learning contents, materials and equipment, assessment methods and tools, the overall learning environment and the socialisation process in school are all critical to ensuring girls’ interest and engagement in STEM studies and, ultimately, STEM careers.
  • STEM careers are considered to be ‘the’ jobs of the future. Ensuring girls and women have equal access to STEM education and ultimately STEM careers is an imperative from the human rights, scientific, and development perspectives. Gender equality in STEM will ensure that boys and girls, men and women, will be able to acquire skills and opportunities to contribute to and benefit equally from the benefits of STEM.

The three-day International Symposium and Policy Forum ‘Cracking the Code: Girls’ Education in STEM’ will bring together leading government policy-makers, major actors in STEM and other key stakeholders from around the world to debate these issues, share experiences and help chart a path to a more equitable STEM education.