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Defeating STEM Biases

Commentary STEM part 3_Defeating STEM biases

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In this final part of a three-part series that explores the gender gap in the field of STEM in Southeast Asia, I propose some ways to overcome the gender biases.

In understanding the perceptions that women have toward STEM, and the factors that contribute to perpetuating it, how then can we regulate these biases, as policymakers and educators? Firstly, it is important to recognise that the interest in STEM does exist at a young age, but is often repressed by pedagogical, psychological and sociocultural barriers. In recognising the influencing factors that young girls encounter most often growing up, it is crucial that we come up with interventions that quash these pre-conceived notions of women in STEM and instead instil confidence in these young girls.

In order to curb the STEM gap, we also need to actively work against the ‘macho culture’, gender stereotypes, lack of role modelling and the confidence gap. This can be done by exposing young girls to female role models and mentors in the field. Remaining passive is not an option as we have to actively work towards achieving gender parity, especially in the field of STEM.

The programme enables girls to find role models and mentors along their journey of pursuing their education and possible careers in the field of STEM, giving them affirmation that girls have the needed capabilities and that it is possible to pursue jobs in a field that is male dominated.

One programme that we can take point from would be “#STEMpower our girls”, a campaign run in the Philippines to encourage female students to take more subjects within the field of STEM. Career caravans were organised for girls to network and find role models in the field of STEM. Role models and mentors play an important role in building confidence of the many girls who want to pursue a career in STEM but are hesitant. The programme enables girls to find role models and mentors along their journey of pursuing their education and possible careers in the field of STEM, giving them affirmation that girls have the needed capabilities and that it is possible to pursue jobs in a field that is male dominated.

This campaign is one example of what we can do as educators – understanding the need for intervention at an early age and the call for the curation of more programmes that help to sustain the interest of these girls. Turning back again to the UWS study, which showed that girls at 15 tend to start steering clear of STEM-related subjects as they pursue higher education, this is a feasible recommendation for educators and policymakers in Singapore. We ought to scrutinise this phenomenon and formulate interventions that will better support girls in lower secondary school in Singapore. Moreover, by establishing a network of women in STEM, this will build the confidence of girls as they work closely with mentors who have paved the way for them, and defeat the perceptions that these girls may have previously held about the field of STEM.

The participants had to demonstrate creativity in creating animated scenes of everyday life, and 96% of these participants came out of the programme with a piqued interest in computing and programming. 

Another campaign that we can learn from is “Girls2Code”. This campaign was run in Malaysia with ‘Animation Using Scratch’ being the key workshop. Primary school girls were exposed to programming in a fun and approachable way by learning how to make their drawings come to life. Female university students volunteered as mentors and served as role models to these young girls, making female ICT role models more visible. The participants had to demonstrate creativity in creating animated scenes of everyday life, and 96% of these participants came out of the programme with a piqued interest in computing and programming. I earlier identified creativity as a valuable trait for people in this particular field, but it works the other way too: STEM lessons can and should encourage creativity and innovative thinking.

Both of these campaigns focus greatly on instilling confidence in young girls as well as connecting them with the role models that can help them in their future. As we look at these school-level interventions, we can see how these projects target the changing of perceptions in these young women, the defeating of stereotypes as well as the building of confidence.

STEM is vital to a society’s development. More than just the function and the role it plays in a country’s development, it is about the competencies and skills that students can equip themselves with for the future. It is about having women who are able to drive innovation through representation and offer new perspectives in research. As educators, we need to realise that having role models in the industry serves as symbols of hope and confidence for young women to step up and move past the own intrinsic biases that they may have built up on their own. It will ultimately be a tough battle, as we fight to bring down these barriers that society has built up but instilling confidence and unleashing the potential of these young women could be just the catalyst we need to defeat these biases in the field of STEM.

 

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.

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Mr Ho Swee Huat

Mr Ho Swee Huat is the Founder and Managing Director of Abacus Assets Advisors Pte Ltd. Before starting the company, he had an established career in the banking industry, with 20 years of experience in Singapore, Hong Kong and New York.

He was an Independent Director and Chairman of the Audit Committee of CapitaCommercial Trust Management LTD from 2004 to 2013.

He is the current Chairman of Autism Association (Singapore) which he co-founded with a group of parents in 1992. He is also Vice-Chairman of Eden School, a special school for children with autism.

Mr Ho holds a Master’s degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and a Liberal Arts degree in Economics from Hamilton College, USA.

He has been a member of the Board of the Foundation since its incorporation.