Stereotypes stop girls studying science subjects

Gender stereotypes and perceptions of difficulty are deterring girls from taking up science and technology subjects and careers, a survey suggests.

However, the survey also shows that most parents are ill-equipped to advise their daughters on careers in science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM).

Technology consultants Accenture surveyed about 400 second-level girl students online, as well as more than 200 parents with daughters in second-level education, the same number of teachers, and 150 woman aged 18 to 23. Almost half of current students felt the subjects are more suited to males than females.

However, a lack of information for girls on related career options and poor career guidance at school were also strong factors, more so in retrospect of young women who had left school.

Teachers’ views underline the continuation of stereotypes in the careers boys or girls favour, with digital marketing and social media one of the few careers they identified male and female students moving toward.

While girls study biology in high numbers, this is not replicated in physics, in which fewer females make up the numbers taking the subject to higher level Leaving Certificate.

“If this trend continues, it will present serious challenges for industry in filling jobs that require a talent pool with physics knowledge and skills,” said report author Marian Corcoran.

Almost one third of girls surveyed dropped from higher to ordinary level maths six months to a year before the Leaving Certificate, with more than half of them putting the decision down to the amount of work needed to get a good grade at higher level. While girls have moved in greater numbers towards higher-level maths since the introduction two years ago of 25 bonus points for college entry, the option is still taken by more male students.

Parents and teachers believe a lack of female role models in the STEM sector is the biggest influence on the gender gap. Parents play a key role in how students pick Leaving Cert subjects, but they said they rely more on children for information about their options than on teachers, principals, and guidance counsellors.

The trends here are mirrored internationally, with 5% of girls and 18% of boys in OECD countries expecting to have careers in engineering and computing.

However, James Whelton, co-founder of coding network CoderDojo, said the interest in technology is changing and young women will dominate the field sooner than people think.

“We must remember that kids are now immersed in technology,” said Mr Whelton. “Whatever their interests, whether it be sport or Justin Bieber, the medium by which they are consuming information is radically different, it is technology-centric.”

Training and Skills Minister Ciarán Cannon said it is concerning that women account for less than a quarter of people working in science and technology. However, knowing the barriers to girls making relevant choices is crucial to correcting this, he said.


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