Monday 09

UOC Research Week tackles gender gap in STEM studies and occupations

Posted by Universitat Oberta de Catalunya on 09 May 2016

Dismantling stereotypes, addressing academic issues and involving colleges and universities are some of the key actions to overcome women’s low share in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) areas and occupations. These and many other actions were discussed on April 19th at the Palau Macaya of La Caixa Foundation during a round table entitled “What Can Future Education Do in Order to Overcome Gendered Academic and Occupational Interests?

From left to right, Chandra Muller, Barbara Schneider, Mila Sáinz, Ursula Kessels, and Maria Casanellas during the UOC’s Research Week round table on gender and STEM.
Credit: UOC, CC BY-NC-SA

Organised by the Gender & ICT Research Programme within the framework of the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) Research Week, I started the session presenting some data on STEM enrolment in Spain, introducing the topic of vocational segregation, and remarking that usually STEM jobs are well paid and in high demand, but mainly occupied by men.

The round table started with Barbara Schneider, Hannah Distinguished Professor in the College of Education at Michigan State University, who stated that 'challenge' is one of the biggest drivers when choosing a career, especially for girls. And there are some areas, like computer science, that usually girls don’t find challenging, so they are less willing to enrol and more prone to leave in case they do. Schneider highlighted two major threads for women in STEM: personal and institutional factors. As she explained in a video interview after the round table, “we have to find ways to help young people with those personal factors” but we also should aim at changing the institutional factors, “because it is the speediest way” to an improvement.

In her turn, Ursula Kessels, Professor on Educational Research at Freie Universität Berlin, addressed how gender stereotypes about learning clash with students’ gender identity. In this sense, several studies indicate that girls liking science areas, like physics, are seen as lacking femininity. Moreover, academic success for boys in STEM areas is seen as a product of their ability, whereas for girls is seen as a product of their effort. According to Kessels, interventions to overcome these issues “will be less successful if they focus on attractiveness of science to girls”, so her advice is to “emphasise the compatibility of female gender roles with interests in science and technology.”

Chandra Muller, Alma Cowden Madden Professor of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at Austin, addressed the effect of Maths training on STEM workforce outcomes. Taking into account that STEM-related occupations where protected against the decline in jobs share due to economic downturn, it looks rather important to get women into those highly specialised jobs. But as Muller pointed out, the problem is that taking advanced course works on maths in high school for girls does not seem to guarantee they are going to earn a STEM degree further on. As she reckons in a short interview after the event, “if we don’t allow women in these fields we have a social problem. Our companies and universities will be better off if we have a diverse representation in STEM.”

Finally, Maria Casanellas, Associate Professor of Mathematics at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya, focused on motivation and self-confidence of girls in mathematics. She referred to some data indicating that the presence of women mathematicians is really low in Northern Europe and in high decrease in Spain during the last decade. Regarding gender differences in maths performance, Casanellas explained that it is not a problem of intellectual ability, but of self-confidence and motivation.

The round table ended with a session of Q&A coming from both the audience and social media. Organised by the Gender & ICT group at UOC, this was one of the main events celebrated in the context of the UOC Research Week, an open meeting point to reflect and debate about the university of the future that took place from 18th to 22nd April. Interestingly, the Gender & ICT group leads the EU-funded project GenPORT, which under Jörg Müller’s coordination aims at building an internet portal for sharing knowledge and inspiring collaborative action on gender and science.

Mila Sáinz

Sáinz is Director of the Gender and ICT Research Programme, Internet Interdisciplinary Institute - Universitat Oberta de Catalunya

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