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From 28 to 30 August 2017 three members of the mathematics task force and one VVOB programme coordinator attended the International Symposium and Policy Forum on Cracking the Code: Girls’ Education in STEM organized by UNESCO in Bangkok, Thailand. The overall aim of the UNESCO International Symposium and Policy Forum was to make the case for strengthening girls’ education in STEM subjects and ultimately female representation in STEM careers and decision-making.                                 

To ensure inclusive education and sustainable development for all, girls and women must have the same opportunities to be involved in and benefit from STEM education. The MoEYS-VVOB programme on Strengthening Math Results and Teaching “SMART” organises capacity development with a strong focus on developing gender-responsive competences.

During the symposium, the taskforce identified the particular obstacles that keep female students away from STEM education and careers. The task force members learnt how to stimulate girls’ interest in STEM from the earliest years, how to combat stereotypes and how to train teachers to encourage girls to pursue STEM careers. They discussed how to develop curricula that are gender-sensitive, how to mentor girls and young women and change peoples’ mindsets.

Current status of girls and women in STEM education

More female students are in school today than ever before but they do not always have equal opportunities to complete and benefit from an education of their choice. Many overlapping factors affect girls’ access to, achievements in and completion of education. One area of longstanding concern is the low rate of female participation in STEM studies and consequently STEM careers.

Facts about girls and women in STEM subjects and careers

  • Only 17 women have won a Nobel Prize in physics, chemistry or medicine since Marie Curie in 1903, compared to 572 men.
  • Today, only 28% of all the world’s researchers are women.
  • Within the female student population in higher education globally, only around 30% choose STEM related fields of study.

Data source: UIS 2014-2016

Key messages from the symposium

One of the main purposes of the symposium was to discuss the results of the report of UNESCO (2017) which were drawn on cross-national and regional assessments from more than 120 countries. This report has been written for girls and women around the world to ‘crack the code’ or to decipher the factors influencing girls’ and women’s participation in STEM. The report introduces an ecological model to identify factors on the level of the individual, family, school and society influencing girls’ participation, achievements and progression in STEM education. It further identifies interventions that can be taken at these different levels to inspire, engage and empower girls and women in STEM.

Education systems and schools play a central role in determining girls’ interest in STEM subjects and in providing equal opportunities to access and benefit from quality STEM education.
(UNESCO, 2017)

Some key messages that the task force members took away from the group discussion, presentations, panel discussion and workshops:

  • “Teach girls bravery, not perfection” Reshma Saujani
    The report found that not all girls are deterred by gender stereotypes. Those who have a strong sense of self-efficacy in mathematics or science are more likely to perform well and to choose related studies and careers.
  • Qualified teachers with specialisation in science and mathematics can positively influence girls’ performance and engagement with STEM education and their interest in pursuing STEM careers. Female STEM teachers appear to have stronger benefits for girls, possibly by acting as role models and by helping to dispel stereotypes about sex-based STEM ability.
  • Teachers’ beliefs, attitudes, behaviours and interactions with students can enhance or undermine an equal stimulating learning environment for girls and boys in STEM subjects. Attention to gender dynamics in the classroom and school environment is therefore critical.
  • Curricula and learning materials play an important role in promoting girls’ interest and engagement in STEM subjects. Positive images and texts about women and girls, topics that are of interest to both girls and boys, and opportunities for inquiry and practice are essential.
  • Opportunities for real-life experiences with STEM, including hands-on practice, apprenticeships, career counselling and mentoring can expand girls’ understanding of STEM studies and professions and raise interest.
  • Assessment processes and tools that are gender-biased or include gender stereotypes may negatively affect girls’ performance in STEM. Girls’ learning outcomes in STEM can also be compromised by psychological factors such as stereotype threat about their ability in STEM.

Way forward: Interventions to attract more girls into STEM

In the meantime, the three task force members have shared their symposium experiences with their team members. Jointly, the task force discussed how they can implement the knowledge and skills they gained on different levels:

  • Individual-level:
    Several studies have shown that girls appear to lose interest in STEM subjects with age, suggesting that early interventions are needed to sustain girls’ interest in these fields. Having role models in STEM at all levels of education, including the early grades, could address this issue. Role models can be older students, academics in STEM or STEM professionals in the private sector and research environments.
    Therefore, the task force will integrate case studies that use female role models in the mathematics manuals.
  • Family- and peer-level:
    Many Cambodian schools have established girl committees. Beside the role that these girl committees already play, they can be further strengthened and refocused to have more attention on stimulating girls’ interest in STEM. Positive influence by female peers is a significant predictor of girls’ interest and confidence in mathematics and science.
  • School-level:
    The SMART programme will build the capacity of teachers to be more gender-responsive in their teaching and classroom management. Furthermore, the SMART programme makes sure that all developed teaching and learning materials are free of gender bias. Pictures, for instance, where women are seen cooking whereas men are seen working in a high-level job, will not be in the new textbooks and manuals.
  • Policy- and society-level:
    Because legislation, quotas, financial incentives and other policies play a significant role in increasing girls’ and women’s participation in STEM education and careers, the SMART programme and VVOB Cambodia advocate for and support gender-sensitive policies and legislations.In addition, VVOB Cambodia is a member of the STEM working group that brings all STEM-actors together, from the NGOs to the governmental departments and from the private sector to the higher education institutes. The working group aims to implement the STEM policy with combined strength.