A Message from Mrs Cohen

20 October 2017

From the Principal
As we are currently finalising the position of Head of Department Science for 2018, I have been thinking a lot about this particular faculty within our school. I am delighted that at Glennie we have the majority of our students taking at least one, and often more, science  subject/s in their senior years. Our science teachers are all highly qualified, professional and passionate about their craft and this rubs off on the girls. The teachers challenge them, push them out of their comfort zones and expect them to use ‘failure’ as a stepping stone to achieve their goals.

UNESCO’s latest report on the gender gap in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) begins with the confronting fact that only 17 women have won a Nobel Prize in physics, chemistry or medicine since Marie Curie in 1903, compared with a staggering 572 men. Even today, only 28% of all the world’s STEM researchers are female. “Such huge disparities,” writes UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, “do not happen by chance.” Rather, she says, the under-representation of girls in STEM “is deep rooted and puts a detrimental brake on progress towards sustainable development”.

UNESCO’s report, Cracking the Code, analysed STEM participation and outcomes in more than 100 countries participating in international studies including PISA 2015 and TIMSS 2015. UNESCO found that differences in boys’ and girls’ mathematics scores widens between primary and secondary school and that, by the age of 15, boys outperform girls in two-thirds of countries measuring applied learning in mathematics. The good news is that UNESCO’s analysis also found that the STEM gender gap is closing in middle-to-high-income countries, particularly in science, possibly because parents - and particularly mothers - with higher educational qualifications and socio-economic status “have more positive attitudes towards STEM education for girls”.

However, there are significant regional differences. In Australia and New Zealand, Year 4 girls slightly outscore boys in science, whereas boys outscore girls in mathematics, particularly in Australia where the differential in boys’ favour is nearly ten points. By age 15, however, boys are outscoring girls in PISA testing in both science and mathematics, with Australia ranking 36th and New Zealand 46th out of 70 participating countries. Interestingly, however, the independent sector in Australia ranked amongst the top performing sectors worldwide. “When we look at other test results, such as the 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), it is pleasing to see that Australia’s independent schooling sector is achieving results equal to some of the best countries in the world,” according to Independent Schools Queensland (ISQ) Executive Director David Robertson,
“When comparing PISA raw average scores, Australian independent school students outperformed all countries in reading and ranked second only behind Singapore in science.”

Countries where girls outperform boys in both science and mathematics at age 15 include Albania, Finland and several Arab and Asian countries, including Jordan which tops the list with girls outscoring boys by nearly 40 points in science and 15 points in mathematics. Girls from Arab countries outperform boys in other secondary school subjects as well, and young women are “seeking and succeeding in higher education at higher rates than young men”. This could be because girls and young women in Arab countries have “greater engagement overall with education”. Another interpretation, writes UNESCO, is that “single sex learning environments present in the region allow greater time for teacher interaction and opportunities for inquiry for girls”.

Addressing the issue of why boys outscore girls in many countries, UNESCO writes that: Research on biological factors, including brain structure and development, genetics, neuroscience and hormones, shows that the gender gap in STEM is not the result of sex differences in these factors or in innate ability. Instead, current research suggests that “learning is underpinned by neuroplasticity” - the ability of the brain to expand and form new connections - which means that educational outcomes, including in STEM, are “influenced by experience and can be improved through targeted interventions”. Importantly, the Cracking the code report states that: Spatial and language skills, especially written language, are positively correlated with performance in mathematics and can be improved with practice, irrespective of sex, especially during the earlier years of life. Because of this, UNESCO says that we must look to other factors to explain the STEM gender gap. These include the “social, cultural and gender norms” which influence the way parents, teachers and the wider community interact with girls and boys. All of these interactions explicitly and implicitly pass on gender stereotypes to girls from a young age, shaping their identity, beliefs and choices.

The evidence shows that “girls’ self-efficacy and attitudes related to STEM are strongly influenced by their immediate family environment, especially parents”, as well as by the wider social environment. Parents, whose own beliefs and expectations are influenced by gender stereotypes, may unintentionally treat boys and girls differently in terms of play and education. In fact, writes UNESCO: Mothers, more than fathers, appear to have a greater influence on their daughters’ education and career choices, possibly due to their role-model function.

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova concludes that girls and women will be “key players” in providing a sustainable future and improving the lives of us all. “They are,” she says, “the greatest untapped population to become the next generation of STEM professionals - we must invest in their talent”.

The Alliance of Girls’ Schools Australasia is currently funding an important research project by Monash University academics, Helen Forgasz and Gilah Leder, on female participation in STEM. A major aim of the study is to track the impact of school setting (single-sex or coeducational) on girls’ subject choices at school and eventual career paths in STEM. Preliminary findings are very positive for girls’ schools and the Alliance will release a the full report in the near future.


Mrs Kim Cohen

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