Australian girls aged 15 to 19 are choosing STEM studies in lower numbers than their counterparts regionally, new research by MasterCard claims.
The ‘Girls in Tech’ study, released this week, shows 33 percent of respondents in Australia were choosing to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects.
This is not only well below the Asia Pacific average of 59 percent, but well behind leading countries.
The study found 76 percent of girls the same age in China were studying STEM subjects, followed by 69 percent of girls in India.
Other countries such as Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia saw around 60 percent of girls taking up STEM studies.
When Australian girls were asked why they didn’t pursue STEM studies, 37 percent cited a lack of interest and 32 percent the difficulty of the subject matter.
Australian girls that did study STEM believed that one solution to attracting greater interest was in promoting “more successful female STEM role models”.
“Only three in 10 Australian girls surveyed claimed to know a female role model outside of their immediate family who is working in STEM, and less than two in 10 knows of a female public figure in the STEM field,” the study said.
The lack of publicity around female role models has already led to a number of initiatives in recent times.
The Government’s own National Innovation and Science Agenda has a stated aim to “highlight the amazing stories of Australia’s successful female innovators and entrepreneurs, and inspire all Australians to engage with STEM.”
In addition, ACS Women is running a ‘Women in ICT’ video series profiling role models in the Australian profession, and media companies have been running their own highlights series in conjunction with Google.
Internationally, there have been a number of initiatives to publicise female STEM pioneers.
The US Government has a series called The Untold History of Women in Science and Technology, which profiles top STEM professionals in history.
Giulia Alice Fornaro, a postdoctoral student working at the famed CERN physics lab, blogged in 2014 her belief that female role models “are vital to encouraging young women who are starting out in STEM careers”.
Fornaro also said that “attracting women into STEM degrees is not the only issue; we must do more encourage young women to stay in science throughout their careers.”
The MasterCard study also found that perceptions about a lack of creativity in STEM careers continue to persist.
“Australian girls overall recognise that STEM as a career is financially and intellectually satisfying, but perceive STEM subjects and careers as not being ‘creative’,” the study said.
It said that “84 percent of the respondents felt that creativity was a personal trait or skill that they found extremely desirable to have, yet when asked what traits they associate with girls in STEM, 40 percent felt girls in STEM have this quality.”
“We must correct the misconception that STEM careers can’t be creative and help build that next generation of women leaders in STEM,” MasterCard’s Asia Pacific group head of communications Georgette Tan said.
Creativity in STEM has been an issue for the past several years, with several factions pushing to rename STEM to STEAM, where the ‘a’ is for arts.
Whether STEM gets rebranded or not, STEAM proponents want the underlying effect to be the same.
“It's about showing students how technical concepts relate to real-world situations and providing them with hands-on projects and problems that help them apply concepts in a new context,” Project Lead the Way CEO Vince Bertram opined in the Huffington Post.
“It's about nurturing students' curiosity and helping them develop creativity, problem solving and critical thinking skills.”