Why aren’t more girls choosing careers in science and engineering?

Why aren’t more girls choosing careers in science and engineering?

It’s no secret that women are under-represented in the offices of most tech companies and laboratories today. Although more women than men complete tertiary education across high-income countries, they account for just 25 percent of graduates in information and communications technology, and 24 percent in engineering. Less clear, however, are the reasons behind this gender gap.

Some studies have pointed to discrimination or the absence of affordable childcare, while others have highlighted the importance of professional networks and personal preferences. Now, new research has shed light on another factor that may be at work: girls’ confidence in science, and their relative strength in other subjects.

The latest issue of PISA in Focus takes a closer look at this research, which was published last year by Gijsbert Stoet and David Geary. Their paper analyses PISA 2015 data to explore the nature of the gender gap in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Girls outperformed boys in science in 19 of the 67 countries and economies that participated in PISA, the paper notes, while boys outperformed girls in 22. (Gender differences were not statistically significant in the remaining 26 countries.)

The authors then analysed gender gaps by looking at each student’s “relative performance” (or “strength”) across the three subjects: reading, mathematics and science.  In nearly all countries, they found that boys scored higher in science and mathematics compared to their average across all subjects, while girls scored higher in reading. These differences could explain why boys are more likely to choose careers in STEM fields, even though both girls and boys perform at similar levels: students may choose their field of study based on their comparative strengths, rather than on their absolute strengths. Girls may be as competent in science as boys, but they are likely to be even better in reading.

Students’ career choices may be influenced by their understanding of their relative academic strengths, as well as their confidence and interest in science.

The findings also show that in 2015, boys’ self-efficacy in science (a measure of confidence when dealing with science topics) was higher than girls’ in 39 out of the 67 countries and economies. Similarly, boys expressed a stronger interest in general science-related topics in 51 countries and economies. These cross-gender differences in relative academic strength, self-efficacy, and interest in science account for a large proportion of the deficit in women’s STEM graduation rates.

The authors used different PISA-based criteria to calculate the share of girls whom one could expect to complete a university STEM degree. Among all students, the share of  girls who attained PISA proficiency Level 4 in all three domains (49%)  was far higher than the share of women who graduated with a university STEM degree between 2012 and 2015 (28%). When the authors further restricted the field of potential STEM graduates to high performers who expressed strong enjoyment, interest and self-efficacy in science, girls accounted for 41% of the pool.

Notably, the difference between expected and actual proportions of women among STEM graduates shrank significantly when the authors further restricted their student pool to those who were relatively stronger in science and mathematics, rather than reading. Using this definition, only one in three girls (34%) was expected to complete a STEM degree. In most countries, however, the percentage of women graduating in a STEM field was still smaller than expected.

The study suggests that students’ career choices may be influenced by their understanding of their relative academic strengths, as well as their confidence and interest in science. Unlike high-performing boys, high-performing girls may not pursue a career in science simply because they are likely to be at or near the top of the class in non-science subjects, too. For policy makers working toward greater gender parity in STEM fields, this implies that  tackling boys’ underperformance in reading may be just as important as supporting girls’ attitudes towards STEM subjects.

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The Science of Teaching Science: Evidence from PISA 2015

The Science of Teaching Science: Evidence from PISA 2015

Education experts have spent the last 50 years debating over a seemingly simple question: what’s the best way to teach science? On one side of the divide are those who support self-guided, enquiry-based approaches, under which students direct their own learning. On the other are proponents of teacher-directed instruction, who say this approach makes it easier for teachers to manage classrooms and cover a wider range of content. Complicating the debate even further is the increasing diversity of student populations, which has raised demands for science curricula to adapt to student needs through adaptive teaching approaches.

We take a closer look at each of these strategies in the latest issue of PISA in Focus. Using new evidence from PISA 2015, we found that each approach has advantages and drawbacks for learning – and that identifying the most effective strategy isn’t as clear cut a proposition as it may seem.

In almost all of the 68 countries and economies that participated in PISA, students in the least disciplined science classes perform worse when exposed to enquiry-based science teaching. But in 33 countries and economies, this negative association disappears when students are learning in a disciplined environment.

In Thailand, exposure to enquiry-based teaching accounted for a four-point increase in performance among students in the most disciplined science classes. But students exposed to enquiry-based teaching in the least disciplined classrooms, scored about 13 points lower than those in more disciplined environments. The benefits gained from attending disciplined science classes with enquiry-based teaching are largest in Georgia (+20 points), Kosovo (+15 points), Lebanon (+13 points), Malta (+14 points), and Slovenia (+13 points).

Our findings shed light on the real-world complexity of teaching.

In OECD countries, enquiry-based teaching seems like the most promising way to nurture positive attitudes toward science – including interest and enjoyment in science-related topics, and participation in science-related activities. We also found that all three teaching practices – enquiry-based, teacher-directed and adaptive teaching are associated with higher expectations among students to pursue a career in science. This association is particularly strong among girls who are exposed to enquiry-based teaching.

Teacher-directed science instruction, on the other hand, is associated with better science performance in almost all countries. This positive association is equally strong across all science sub-domains and proficiency levels, and does not vary with student and school characteristics (e.g. disciplinary climate, student composition, resources, etc.). Based on these findings, we can conclude that teacher-directed practices are likely to deliver good results regardless of environment.

Our findings also show that adapting science lessons to students’ needs is correlated with stronger science performance in the majority of countries, even after accounting for student and school characteristics. This relationship is particularly strong in the Nordic countries, which are known for their comprehensive education systems and their reliance on differentiated learning approaches.

So which strategy would be most effective for science teachers to deploy? Our findings suggest a combination of all three. For example, teachers with strong classroom-management skills and professional knowledge could guide student learning with explicit instruction of basic ideas, then ask them to carry out enquiry-based activities to consolidate their knowledge. At the same time, teachers could also adapt their science lessons to account for differences among students, and help those who have difficulty understand a particular topic.

This conclusion may not be satisfying for those who firmly support one approach over the other. But our findings shed light on the real-world complexity of teaching in various classroom environments – where teachers often have to find the right mix of different practices to achieve the best results for their students.