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Bridging the gender-gap in maths

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15 May 2012

There are significant gender differences among Australian youth in mathematics career aspirations
There are significant gender differences among Australian youth in mathematics career aspirations

A concerning gender-gap exists in career aspirations among Australian youth across science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, a new study has found.

The study, published in Developmental Psychology last month, was the first to compare participation and related occupational planning for STEM careers among senior high-school boys and girls from different country contexts.

Led by Associate Professor Helen Watt from Monash University’s Faculty of Education, researchers cross-examined data from Australia, Canada and the US, finding significant gender differences only among Australian youth in mathematics-related career aspirations, with fewer girls aspiring to maths-related careers than boys.

The gender-gap was attributed to the greater and earlier degrees of choice Australian adolescents have to specialise in their school studies, than in the North American curriculum.

Associate Professor Watt referred to the ‘leaky pipeline’ where students drop out of advanced mathematics along various points of their educational trajectory as concerning.

“The leaky STEM pipeline has become a major area of concern in terms of economic growth in Western countries, particularly if Australia is to compete on the international platform,” Associate Professor Watt said.

“These findings increase our understanding of when and why girls ‘leak’ from the mathematics pipeline in an effort to address the issue in schools.”

The findings challenge current conceptions that girls and women opt away from high-prestige mathematical occupations.

For girls who did aspire to mathematics-related careers, it was found their planned careers were of equal status to those planned by boys.

An important element of the study was examining whether the ‘leaky pipeline’ would have a ‘glass ceiling’. That is, whether girls aspiring to mathematical fields of career would not plan on high-prestige jobs.

“This was not the case and girls were found to plan equally prestigious careers as boys,” Associate Professor Watt said.

“The gender gap in STEM-related career aspirations should be addressed by nurturing secondary students’ interest and demonstrating how maths and science can be useful in the careers girls are most attracted to.

“The relatively early specialisation in secondary school course selections also needs careful thought, timely as the new national curriculum is under consideration.”

Associate Professor Watt presented the findings as an invited address at the Biennial Gender Development Research Conference in San Francisco last month and has actively researched this field for the past 20 years, recently securing a prestigious ARC grant and five-year Fellowship.

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