STEM gender gap rooted in classroom emotional environment


It’s a widely reported truth – women are under-represented in STEM industries.

New research conducted at Curtin University gives a clear-cut picture of why the STEM gender gap is occurring.

Taking from a sample of nearly 250 students from 24 different co-ed classes, the study came up with a handful of conclusions regarding the experiences the opposing genders have when learning about science, technology, English and maths.

Lead author of the study, Associate Professor Rekha Koul, is Deputy Head and Discipline Lead at the STEM Research group at the Curtin University School of Education; she concludes that girls have a more negative experience overall and are significantly more likely to feel that the instructions they were given were less clear.

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“Sadly, our findings were not surprising to me,” she told EducationDaily. “It illustrates the need for decisive intervention from governments if declining enrolments in STEM subjects are ever to be reversed. Especially if we are serious about addressing the stark gender divide regarding STEM study and careers.”

Career aspirations are created early

Changing career aspirations is hard, she says – a problem she believes is partly caused “because career aspirations begin to form quite early in children’s lives – in primary school, if not earlier”.

“Career aspirations are complex because they are deeply emotional aspects of identity -it is about how children feel out possible roles in the world with which to identify and value,” she says.

Associate Professor Koul told EducationDaily that educators need to play a role in understanding their female students’ strengths and use that to encourage an interest in STEM.

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Tapping into girls’ strengths can make a positive difference

“Girls are good at collaboration and communication, so choose activities involving these skills and not limit STEM to robotics or coding,” she says. “In addition, girls can be involved in discussions like how they perceive STEM and gender role labels, exposing them to female STEM role models and educating them about career options in STEM.”

The other question arising here, she says, is how we define STEM.

“Is it the integration of all the four strands in S-T-E-M?”

Or should it, she asks, add extra strands, such as an A for arts, to make STEAM, or even an R for religion to make it STREAM?

Associate Professor Koul believes teachers should place greater emphasis on the social value of the topics students are learning, to build motivation.

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“Our research revealed very few STEM projects made use of proven motivators for girls’ engagement in STEM,” she says.

“Studies show that girls are more motivated when social values are emphasised; that could be improving lives through medicine or creating environmentally sensitive solutions. Most projects were engineering, physics, or robotics projects, which connect easily to male stereotypes of STEM. This limits the meaning and scope of STEM for boys while neglecting to pay attention to what tends to motivate girls.”

Even in robotics – a career which tends to be male-dominated – Associate Professor Koul says choosing projects linked with social aspects of STEM in real-world tasks has been shown to motivate female students.

“Choosing different types of projects offers a wide-open opportunity to engage girls’ preferences.”

Understanding the way emotions impact learning environments

The study – published in the Taylor & Francis journal Research in Science and Technological Education – has been described by the Associate Professor Koul as “[the] first use of the first-ever validated research tool for investigating aspects of emotions as a fundamental part of the learning environment; it shows that girls and boys can be inhabiting different emotional environments, despite being in the same physical classroom”.

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“Learning environment research over the past decades has shown that the student-perceived environment within classrooms is a major predictor of students’ outcomes,” she says.

“Social and emotional interactions between peers within a classroom and between students and the teacher have a marked influence on engagement and learning outcomes. At every level of how we assess education, we have been narrowly focused on cognitive achievement. But how can children achieve cognitively if they are not emotionally secure?”

She says we “need clarity in our thinking and to get over biases regarding the role of emotions in learning”.

The research shows that the emotional differences between male and female students are stark.

“Women [students] often feel trapped in a cycle of low self-belief and negative emotions, leading to greater anxiety and reduced participation,” Associate Professor Koul says.

“It is not just about the classic STEM careers; it is about the need for STEM competencies right throughout the workforce. Classroom emotional climate has not been considered in prior research on gender differences in STEM learning, or in any research on students engaging in integrated STEM projects.”

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Issues are cultural, not biological

“Internationally, in some Eastern European countries or some South Asian countries, this gap is minimal,” she says, adding that she attributes this gap to socio-cultural factors, with the pervasive nature of Western culture playing a significant part.

“The cultural landscape of a student changes when exposed to a STEM role model or moving to a postcode with higher SES,” she says. “The socio-cultural environment has a direct impact on the students’ achievement.”

Associate Professor Koul says the issue is instead that language used in the classroom was often less clearly given to girls than to boys.

“What our study shows is that, although girls are getting exposure to STEM through integrated STEM projects, when you compare them to their male classmates, their attitudes towards STEM are significantly more negative, their motivation is lower, and these projects (integrated learning projects introduced by the Federal Government) are not shifting that,” she told EducationDaily.

“That is linked to the finding that girls perceived less clarity in teachers’ explanations of requirements for completing STEM projects. They also were significantly less likely than boys to find that the feedback about how to approach the projects and improve was clear.”

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Overall, she says, the language in the classroom is significantly lower in clarity for girls than for boys, with girls also reporting feeling that their learning was not consolidated.

“This means that the series of activities, the sort of feedback given throughout, and the way the final product brought together what was learned – all of this tended to feel significantly less clear, obvious, or logical to girls than boys.”

Faster change is needed

Change is occurring, says Associate Professor Koul, but it is slow, only recent, and incremental.

“The focus on achievement will remain overwhelming as long as researchers lack the tools to address questions such as ‘do girls feel like they belong in STEM classrooms?’, or what is the felt experience of such and such an approach,” she says.

“When my colleagues and I first began to pursue this research, there was not even a validated questionnaire for gauging the emotional conditions in a classroom. We had to develop and validate this tool, and now we can share the results.”

But she says more needs to be done – and that it needs to be grounded “in the emotional climate of learning”.

“Australia needs a national agenda with workable policy guidelines for attracting girls to STEM education that would be best tailored to imparting 21st-century skills rather than content knowledge,” she told EducationDaily.

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“83 per cent of primary teachers are females, and the government has prioritised the teaching of STEM education to prepare students for the workforce of the future. Due attention must be given to improving equity in STEM by celebrating the skills girls are good at, for example, collaboration and communication.”

The enormous focus on NAPLAN, which does not include science, also needs revisiting, Associate Professor Koul says, adding that these changes are crucial for creating equity in the workforce.

“Most teachers are female, and a large proportion of them lack confidence in teaching STEM; many are alienated from maths and science and do not want to teach in those areas,” she says.

“These are the teachers who influence the most sensitive stages as future career identities develop.”

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