According to a new study, the countries that are worst at getting women into science, technology, and engineering – the STEM fields – are those with the most gender equality.
Women make up just 14.4% of all people working in STEM in the UK, despite being about half of the workforce. In Algeria, by contrast, 41% of STEM college graduates are female. Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are the only countries in which girls are significantly more likely than boys to be “comfortable” working on maths problems.
The authors argue that women in more unequal countries may want the clearest path to financial freedom, whereas more equal countries empower women to choose what they most enjoy – which may not be science.
But even if it is a product of women freely choosing things they find more interesting, policymakers across the world worry about the gender gap in science and technology.
One concern is around the future of work: many of the fastest growing jobs are in science and technology, and the men concentrated in those fields stand to gain disproportionately. The UK’s technology sector is growing 2.8 times faster than overall employment.
And a lack of diversity has inherent drawbacks. Artificial intelligence robots have shown that they are capable of being sexist, but more women working in AI could help. Medical research routinely ignores important gender differences, endangering women by marketing drugs not tested on them. But a new study of more than 1.5 million papers has shown female authors are more likely to pay attention to sex in their research.
Some reasons for the gender gap in STEM are around the sector itself: from long hours and travel unsuitable for carers to unconscious bias and sexism.
But many girls choose not to pick STEM subjects at school, so interventions there can help, too. Research shows gender differences in skills or ability are minimal; the real problems are gender stereotypes, few role models, and girls’ lack of confidence.
Sex-segregation: a controversial answer
A chemistry professor from Edinburgh University recently faced backlash when she called for a controversial solution: girls-only sciences classes to build confidence and protect against stereotypes.
In the US, at least, single-sex schools have a checked history. In the 1870s, Harvard professor Edward H. Clarke generated popular support for girls-only schools by arguing that the rigours of a standard education would cause girls’ reproductive organs to wither. In the 1950s, sex-segregated public schools were created across the South to keep boys and girls of different racial backgrounds apart.
But single-sex schools are, after all, the norm in many of the countries doing better on STEM, like Jordan, the UAE and Algeria.
“When girls are in our classrooms, they have no sense of gender stereotyping at all – they are simply surrounded by other girls”
And a new Australian study has been touted by Australia’s Girls Schools Association as evidence to support the idea. Researchers analysed subject choice of students in Victoria from 2001-2015, and found that girls in single-sex schools are 85% more likely to take advanced STEM subjects than co-ed girls.
Long-term tracking studies by UCL researchers have also found that girls in single-sex schools were more likely to study science. And the UK government has said there is “some evidence” that girls and boys at single-sex schools are less likely to hold gender-stereotypical views about science subjects.
Advocates argue that girls in single-sex schools are less thwarted by stereotypes and insecurities. “Girls tend to be more self-critical, I think, than boys, so if they are in girls-only classrooms, they’ve then got that space to allow their intellectual and social confidence to blossom,” said the former President of the UK Girls’ Schools Association, Charlotte Avery.
“Teenagers also feel they’ll fit in better in subjects where there are more of their own gender. If you are a girl going into an A-level physics group, in a co-ed environment the pupils are going be boys so you’ll feel that you are implicitly – if not explicitly – not welcome.
“When girls are in our classrooms in girls’ schools, they have no sense of gender stereotyping at all – they are simply surrounded by other girls,” she added
And, in the US, girls’ schools appear to be on the rise. The last decade has seen renewed interest in single-sex education following a 2001 legislative change – co-sponsored by Hilary Clinton – that provided federal funds to single-sex public schools.
Studies and meta-studies
It’s often repeated that there are now around 500 single-sex programs in US schools, compared with just a dozen 10 years ago. However, that’s just an estimate: the government does not publish national data on the subject. “I’d doubt that number. There are no good statistics, and if you started checking and calling those schools, many went back to co-ed. I know of several myself,” said Professor Diane Halpern, Professor of Psychology, Emerita at Claremont McKenna College.
And, while studies like the recent one in Australia have been touted as evidence of benefits for girls, correlation is not causation. Most single-sex schools in Victoria are fee-paying; so, it could be socio-economic status that determines science popularity. The OECD has also found that single-sex schools achieve better outcomes, but those results are mainly due to socioeconomic factors.
“It would be too simplistic to conclude that it is the gendered setting of the school alone that contributes to this,” one of the authors of the report, Professor Helen Forgasz, said. “In our view, socio-economic status, parental educational background, and various other factors are likely to have contributed to the differences.” The authors even found the same pattern – single-sex education leading to more STEM enrolment – to be generally evident for boys.
And other studies show no benefits for girls at all. “There’s a huge research literature – some studies find one thing, some find the opposite. You can’t really look at single study outcomes: you need to look at multiple studies, as in a meta-analysis,” said Halpern.
One such meta-analysis from 2014 analysed 184 studies of more than 1.6 million students from around the world and found no significant proven advantages of single-sex schooling over co-education, either for boys or for girls.
No silver bullet
Public funding for single-sex schools also has many outspoken opponents. Campaigners in Scotland are calling for the government to allow the country’s last single-sex state school to open its doors to boys, calling it discriminatory and unfair to exclude people from public services based on gender.
“We don’t learn to work together and respect each other through segregation”
And some argue that single-sex education also poses risks to girls by reinforcing gender binaries from a young age – though evidence for this is also lacking. The American Civil Liberties Union has recently filed complaints with the Education Department against four Florida school districts, accusing them of using “overly broad stereotypes” to justify separating girls and boys in different classrooms.
“Gender-role stereotyping can actually be reinforced by splitting boys and girls in the one school setting,” said Forgasz. “For many years, sports have been taught separately for girls and boys, and only recently has it been considered appropriate for girls to play certain sports that have been male-dominated, like rugby or Aussie-rules football.”
Halpern agreed: “One of the disadvantages is increased sexual stereotyping: any time we separate people into groups, whether it’s black and white – whatever the groups are – then we’re fundamentally saying that these groups are different and can’t learn together,” she said.
“Even if there are differences between boys and girls, we need to learn from variety. We don’t learn to work together and respect each other through segregation. Suppose you’re a man who gets out of school and you’ve never had classes with girls and now your first job you have a female supervisor – you’re not used to that,” she said.
“That is what’s needed – for society at large to believe that females are as capable as males and behave accordingly”
Other interventions have been tested in developed countries that show promise for getting girls into science, including making role models available to girls, introducing inclusive language in the classroom, and giving information about STEM workplaces.
But there are no quick-fixes to either ingrained stereotypes or underperformance of certain groups in schools. “People are looking for new ways to help kids succeed, and this is something easy – instead of doing the hard work of actually improving how we teach, getting additional help to kids who need it, and so on,” said Halpern.
Forgasz agreed. “Changing attitudes is a big challenge. But that is what’s needed – for society at large to believe that females are as capable as males and behave accordingly.”
(Picture credit: Flickr/USAID)