According to the World Economic Forum, female students and employees are under-represented in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). In schools, most female students would rather pursue the arts, rather than subjects like mathematics and engineering. This phenomenon can be termed the STEM gender gap. As Figure 1 from this UIS Factsheet shows, gender parity has still not been achieved in many countries globally. Southeast Asia, as compared to the world average of 30%, fares slightly better in terms of achieving gender parity. However, there is definitely more that can be done.
This inconsistency and divergence here emanate largely from gender stereotypes, male-dominated cultures, lack of role models and math anxiety, as written in this article from the American Association of University Women.
Despite female students actually achieving results on par with those of their male counterparts in math and science courses, many girls propel away from the science and engineering courses at the undergraduate level. The gender gap exists and is evident, and I aim to delve deeper into this topic and suggest how we can slowly learn to defeat these STEM biases in Southeast Asia.
Before I further examine the gap, however, it is paramount that I establish the need for greater women representation in the field of STEM; namely, the need for gender diversity.
STEM serves as an interdisciplinary educational approach, and allows for the holistic development of students. With STEM, students are equipped with the ability to take an integrative approach to identify, apply and integrate different concepts, to come up with innovative solutions to real-world problems. Only with a sufficiently diverse pool of ideas from students even at an early learning stage can truly informed outcomes be expected.
Only with a sufficiently diverse pool of ideas from students even at an early learning stage can truly informed outcomes be expected.
Similarly, STEM teams in the workforce need diverse viewpoints. Diversity exists only with the presence of variety in a group. This variety can stem from ensuring each group consists of people of different genders, races, cultures, ethnicities, nationalities and so on. According to an article by Forbes, diverse teams actually produce better outcomes. Whether it be cognitive diversity, gender diversity or even just a mere difference in the size of the group, it is acknowledged that alternative perspectives more often than not lead to the optimal solution. Moreover, this study found that a random group of intelligent problem solvers, i.e. a diverse group, will outperform a group of homogenous high-ability problem solvers. Scientific American actually established that diversity actually makes people more creative, more diligent, and harder-working, changes the way people think and ultimately makes us smarter. The traits listed above that individuals can develop and harness through introducing diversity are essential to the world of STEM. Diversity is important for new breakthroughs, deeper research and fresh perspectives.
More than just allowing for greater representation of women in the field of STEM, diversity benefits research in general. A more representative workforce leads to more exhaustive questions being asked, and problems being targeted from a variety of angles. By encouraging inclusivity and supporting girls who want to pursue STEM, we open pathways and opportunities for greater innovation and scientific success in the long-run.
This is where the role of women comes in — they play an important one in ensuring that the needs of all in society are represented.
Beyond diversity, women are important to the future of innovation. As the world evolves, we still find that many of these inventions are catered to and designed for men, which ultimately leaves a significant portion of society’s needs out of consideration. This is where the role of women comes in – they play an important one in ensuring that the needs of all in society are represented. When the seatbelt was first introduced, it was modelled to fit the male body, which resulted in the loss of lives of many women and children because their body types were not considered. Similarly, a lot of personal protective equipment like overalls, knee pads, and ear and eye protection do not actually fit most women. 95% of women find that they struggle with equipment that does not fit them, and hence does not protect them like it was meant to. Without the presence of women in the field of STEM, innovation will be limited and exclude half of the population. We need more women in STEM to further innovation and better represent the needs of society.
In the following commentaries, I will be exploring STEM in Southeast Asia, and the biases that have taken root in girls from Grades 1-12 (ages 6-18). As I identify these stereotypes and perceptions that have evolved over the years, I will also look at interventions that we can execute as educators and which will hopefully diminish these biases.
Gabrielle Chan is part of the Education team at The HEAD Foundation, working on education projects and research.
The HEAD Foundation Commentary is a platform to provide timely and, where appropriate, policy-relevant commentary of topical issues and contemporary developments. The views expressed by the authors are solely their own and do not reflect opinions of The HEAD Foundation.