Why is there such a big push to get more female students into STEM? What’s the urgency and why now? These are some questions you may have pondered when seeing so many initiatives around achieving gender equality in the STEM arena. It’s quite simple really, the world is changing at an unprecedented rate, and along with these changes is a whole set of new careers and the skills required for many of these new careers are centred around STEM. It’s predicted that future workers will spend more than twice as much time on job tasks requiring science, maths and critical thinking than today.
To have a diverse and qualified pool of workers for the jobs of the future, we need to ensure we equip female students with the same set of skills which until recent times have largely been stereotyped as male skills.
A recent national study around the Filipino youth’s understanding and perceptions of STEM, conducted by STEM+PH, the flagship program of Unilab Foundation, in partnership with the Philippine Business Coalition for Women Empowerment (PBCWE) and YouthInsight, found that an equal proportion of Filipino girls and boys are selecting STEM subjects in secondary school, but when it comes to higher education, the gender gap in STEM subject consideration becomes glaringly visible.
The study found that 34% of Filipino boys and girls are considering at least one STEM subject in Grades 11 and 12. However, fast forward a couple of years, and suddenly, 73% of male students are considering a STEM course in higher education compared to 59% of female students. So, what happens in these senior high school years of high school? The study also found that over half (55%) of male students have a STEM career in mind compared to only 34% of females. Perhaps the girls are steering away from STEM in Higher Education because they can’t see themselves or don’t want to see themselves in a STEM career.
A separate study conducted by Unilab and PBCWE titled, The WOMEN IN STEM – A baseline study found that a lack of self-confidence is a key constraint for women working in careers related to STEM, with some participants claiming that there is a need for women to do things way beyond what is expected of them.
The Filipino youth study confirmed that low confidence around STEM plagues female students significantly more than male students, with males showing more confidence in all STEM subjects except for science, where both genders are on equal footing. It was also found that around half of Filipino students believe boys are more competent than girls in engineering and technology and a third in mathematics. However, the study also confirmed that girls recognise the importance of STEM skills to acquire jobs in the future even more than boys.
So, the diversion away from STEM at a higher education level is not about a lack of understanding of its importance, nor is it about not having the prerequisites skills from secondary schooling. The problem is very much centered around female students’ abilities to see themselves in STEM careers and having the confidence to take the pathways in that direction.
Initiatives to help build female student confidence in STEM will be critical to encourage girls to continue their studies in STEM fields beyond secondary schooling. Female students also need support in being able to see themselves in STEM roles, which may seem intimidating knowing they will be in male-dominated jobs. Giving young girls access to female role models is one way to do this.
Thankfully, a lot is already being done to address this issue including the Pinays Can STEM platform, an initiative established by STEM+PH in partnership with UL Skin Sciences. The Pinays Can STEM initiative is an advocacy campaign that aims to empower and encourage all Filipinas in STEM. The campaign has also established social media pages on Facebook, Instagram, and their own Blog to ensure the message reaches Filipinas of all age groups and interest groups.