Studies mentioned in the first commentary have demonstrated the gender gap that exists in the world of STEM – one that is derived from four specific factors: gender stereotypes, male-dominated cultures, fewer role models, and math anxiety. In this commentary particularly, I will be focusing on the factors of math anxiety and gender stereotypes.
In Singapore, despite the proportion of women enrolled in University STEM courses increasing to 41% in 2019 from 38% to 2017, there still remains gender biases in the field of STEM, which I will further explore in this commentary.
According to research done by United Women Singapore (UWS) on Singaporean students, of the women surveyed who considered STEM-related subjects for higher studies, one out of three changed their mind at aged 15. Interestingly, this age coincides with the age that most students in the Singapore education system have to decide their subjects for the National ‘O’ Level exams, which I will further explore in the recommendations below.
The study also found only 32% of women surveyed were interested in STEM subjects, as compared to 46% of men. The commonly-cited reasons for this were that women found STEM subjects significantly harder as compared to men, and that women also were simply just less interested in these subjects as a whole. Examining the first two reasons listed in the research – ‘I find STEM subjects difficult’ and ‘I am not interested in STEM subjects’, I see that the proportion of females agreeing with the statement is significantly higher than that of the males. This can be linked to the statistics mentioned earlier, where girls at age 15 changed their interests from STEM to non-STEM subjects.
The research also revealed that women lacked the confidence to pursue careers in STEM, as 42% of females indicated that they did not feel qualified and would not be able to cope in the field of STEM. Delving deeper, we realise that the lack of confidence and interest is highly associated in the way women perceive themselves. Women generally tend to perceive themselves as more creative and fun-loving (soft skills) as compared to being good with numbers and tech-savvy (hard skills). However, what is shocking is that creativity is actually a key trait when it comes to STEM. In addition, soft skills such as innovation and communication were ranked as fourth and fifth of the skills required to excel in the field of STEM. We see here that STEM involves not just the cultivation of technical skills, but also the holistic development of the student, where problem solving, creativity and critical thinking, among many other 21st Century Core Competencies, are imparted to each individual.
Throughout the years, studies have been conducted, in which girls and boys are asked to “draw a scientist”, in a bid to quantify the stereotypes and biases students have about people who pursue careers in STEM. Predictably, the majority of scientists drawn have been male. Though the percentage of women scientists drawn has increased over the years, these were mostly drawn by girls. What is of greater concern is that as the girls grow older, more of them tend to draw male scientists. These pre-conceived notions about people in STEM and these images that these girls have about themselves may prove harmful if these trends are to persist.
Existing STEM biases and perceptions influence the way young girls perceive themselves, where they lack confidence in their abilities despite their interest in STEM subjects. They are accustomed to seeing themselves in a certain way, which hinders their own potential for growth in STEM, and deters them from taking up math and science subjects in school. The alarming data shown above should be more than enough to convince us, as policymakers and educators, that something has to be done – we need to step up in actively eliminating these damaging stereotypes.
Gabrielle Chan is part of the Education team at The HEAD Foundation, working on education projects and research.
The HEAD Foundation Commentary is a platform to provide timely and, where appropriate, policy-relevant commentary of topical issues and contemporary developments. The views expressed by the authors are solely their own and do not reflect opinions of The HEAD Foundation.