Women in NSW Education and Learning – we have a STEM problem

education-and-learning-reportI have long argued that to get more women doing STEM subjects requires a change to the whole of society not just schools. The recently released report on Women in NSW Education and Learning supports that point of view.

One of the Report’s core findings is that there is a clear difference in girls and boys results from the early years of primary school: “From a young age we see variances between boys and girls in NAPLAN results, with girls consistently outperforming boys in reading, and boys consistently stronger in numeracy.” Unless you are going to start arguing that there is some inherent reason that boys are better at maths, a position I categorically reject, the early NAPLAN results cannot really be laid at the school’s door.  (It’s worth noting that girls do consistently better than boys in every field except numeracy, so if you do go down the ‘boys are just better at maths rabbit-hole’, you also have to logically accept that girls are inherently better at everything else.) No, the difference lies in how we as a society judge, encourage, and validate boys and girls; and while that inherently flows through to how schools and teachers work, it’s not all down to them.

The good news is that the difference between girls and boys in numeracy has been narrowing in the early years of school. However, as students progress through school the gap widens again until it is at its widest at the Year 9 NAPLAN. When you move into the last two years of school the difference lies less in results and more in the mammothly disproportionate number of boys taking STEM electives.

None of this is particularly surprising. It simply puts additional figures around something everyone knows. There is one area that does leap out as different though.

The Report pretty much shows women trailing men in STEM participation through all levels of education apart from one: There are more women than men completing postgraduate studies in STEM fields. The lower participation in earlier years makes the higher numbers of postgraduates even more significant.

Press reports have touted this as a ray of hope by focusing on individuals studying for their PhD, which gives a sense that women might be making up in quality what they lack in quantity. However, when you actually look at the figures the results are not quote so heartening.

The main caveat is that postgraduate courses include nursing which is hugely skewed towards women. Now nursing is an important and valuable profession – what it is not, is valued. The number of men taking postgraduate studies in areas such as engineering, IT, and architecture – high status and well-remunerated – dwarfs the number of women. It is nursing that is pushing the female participation numbers as a total and so you’d have to say that the totals are masking a continuing issue with women in STEM even at the postgraduate level.

In most fields graduate starting salaries are lower for women than for men. In Law women graduates trail men by $5000. Interestingly women graduates are ahead in Biological Sciences and Accounting. There’s no explanation given or suggested for these figures but some of it is clearly driven by a blurring created when you total large numbers – so for example male teachers earning more than female is probably driven by the fact there are so few male teaching graduates, and by the fact males almost exclusively go into specialised high school positions rather than more general primary school jobs.

Outside of that the only explanation for the difference in starting salaries is society’s inherent biases in action. Which neatly brings me back to the main point that we cannot divorce education from the rest of society. The issue of getting greater female participation in STEM subjects and jobs is not just about schools, we have to take responsibility for this as a society and make changes at all levels. Reports like this are important in reinforcing that there is a real problem – what’s needed are some real solutions.

The Report has little sections highlighting ‘What is being done’ – they make for interesting reading solely because they highlight that nothing is really being done to target this specific problem. For example what is being done to deal with the gender pay gap? We’re aiming for NSW to create 150,000 new jobs by 2019. That’s it: there’s absolutely no connective tissue between the problem and the ‘solution’. We might just as well say that the solution is to build new roads to cut commuting times – sure that’s a government policy, it’s just not one that’s got anything to do with the problem.

One final thing is highlighted when you read between the lines in the Report. Females are not taking STEM subjects, but most teachers are women – see the gap? Where do we find the people trained in STEM subjects to teach the next generation? To whatever extent we have problems with STEM participation from both boys and girls in school, it’s only going to get worse if we don’t have interested and qualified teachers coming through the pipeline.

Education and Learning, in the Women in NSW Report Series 2016 can be found here.

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