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Why Don't More Girls Study STEM?

This is a question we get asked a LOT. 

At one of our recent online events, we brought our community together to dive into the details with us, accompanied by a panel of experts including sociologist and professor Leah Ruppaner, Courtney Addison from CareerTrackers and STEM Fast Track CEO Teresa Janowski. We are finally beginning to understand why this phenomenon exists.

Spoiler: the answer is much more nuanced than we think.

To really challenge this idea, Leah shared with us some incredible insight: “there is no empirical evidence that girls are worse at STEM than boys.” We can’t continue enacting the assigned gender roles that send young boys into the science buildings and shepherd young girls away. Not only does this conform to a binary and ignore possible gender diversities, it is statistically unfounded.

Our unconscious bias is hurting us and the future generations

The generalisations we make about young girls and STEM are often unconscious. That doesn’t mean though they don't carry long-term impact. Courtney reflected on a pivotal moment in her learning journey. When choosing her senior school subjects she sought out advice from her school in finding additional maths and sciences resources. Instead of providing assistance they persuaded her into studying something else - using the classic line of “boys are just better at maths and sciences, girls study history and English.”  For teenage Courtney and for most impressionable teenagers, hearing this from an authority figure changes our perception of self. It wasn’t until finding a mentor at University did Courtney realise she could actually pursue “the best of both worlds” -  science and economics and sociology. 

Our preconceived notions of what a scientist looks like begins early. This is something Teresa has perceived working in primary schools and it is something she actively challenges. Teresa, who prides herself on dressing in polka dot blouses and mushroom jumpers, will introduce herself as an engineer. So often students hear this and repeatedly tell her “no you can’t be.” They are socialised to expect a tech genius to be a white cis man. It is not the fault of these young kids - it is years of media stereotyping. 

Moving beyond our biases and having diverse role models      

Teresa calls for a disruption to the system - in a safe way, of course. For young girls to keep their interest in STEM, we should be supporting educators (that includes parents) to move beyond these biases and allow students to problem solve, showcase their diversities and for failures to be normalised. 

To challenge biases we have to keep challenging how we view education. Courtney, who is a proud Worimi woman raised on Wonnarua Country, echoes this idea and the immeasurable value of having First Nations perspectives, particularly in environment studies and sciences. Courtney shared a story of a young woman on a University excursion who could identify when the rain was impending thanks to watching the movement of the birds. We need to be recognising “the challenges of First Nation languages but also sharing the knowledge.” 

Diverse voices at every opportunity is the only way forward for revolutionising tech. Leah jokes that nobody wants to “build a discriminatory piece of technology.” Until we have more women, more First Nations people, more gender-diverse people, more marginalised groups at the table though, we cannot have accessible and inclusive developments in tech. 

So why don’t more young girls study STEM?

It all comes back to the learning environments and experiences that girls as young as 5 years old all the way to twenty-somethings are shaped by. A sentiment we share in the CLG community is “you can’t be what you can’t see.” We have to keep encouraging young people from all communities to be engaged in STEM programs so that the future of technology is in safe, capable and diverse hands. 

Want to keep having these kinds of conversations with us? Check out our What’s On Page to see all our upcoming events and follow us on socials for all the latest CLG news.

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