Girls who have not engaged in STEM classes – that is Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – by an early age risk alienation from the workforce later in life, researchers claim.
“It’s too late to think about it when the girl is 25,” Professor Iwona Miliszewska, head of Canberra University's school of information systems and accounting, says.
Professor Miliszewska says that girls start to lose interest in information and communications technology (ICT) as early as nine years of age if they are not properly engaged, let alone not introduced to the concept.
“Conditioning must start much earlier and should be an orchestrated effort,” she says. The professor who has worked in both education and IT for more than 40 years, says girls must be introduced to STEM by grade 7 at the very latest, but the classroom isn’t the only place where IT skills are reinforced.
Parents and teachers and society at large have to come to the party.
“To achieve any chance of success later in life, suitable enablers have to be provided. And early introduction to ICT and tech and systems thinking and creative thinking in schools is an absolute prerequisite.”
Australia has not yet implemented a national STEM curriculum.
Academics including Dr Tony Koppi, executive officer of the Australian Council of Deans of ICT believe that a technology curriculum should start at grade 4, engaging kids with programming and other computational thinking from a very early age.
“The rest of the world is moving ahead with this direction,” Dr Koppi says.
STEM syllabuses have been implemented in the UK school system, as well as other countries throughout Europe including countries such as Germany, “to great effect”, according to Professor Miliszewska.
A report commissioned by the UK Labour Government, Science & Innovation Investment Framework 2004-2014, has explored the relevance of STEM to economic growth and wellbeing and found: “The nations that can thrive in a highly competitive global economy will be those that can compete on high technology and intellectual strength - attracting the highest skilled people and the companies which have the potential to innovate and to turn innovation into commercial opportunity. These are the sources of the new prosperity.”
A study by the Australian Council of Learned Academies Securing Australia’s Future, April 2014 found a “severe gender imbalance” in Australian university enrolments in STEM.
“In Vocational and Educational Training (VET) STEM in 2010, 25 per cent of students were women," the study says.
"In higher education the female share of STEM was 44 per cent, compared to 56 per cent in all disciplines. Once health sciences and nursing are taken out of the picture the imbalance looks more extreme. In information technology in higher education in 2010, 15 per cent of students were women; in engineering 14 per cent. In 2008, 37 per cent of all STEM doctoral degrees, with health included, were awarded to women. This was below Portugal and Israel but higher than in most other OECD nations.”
The report found STEM skills were necessary not only in related occupations but in other economic sectors as well:
“Given both the competitiveness of obtaining employment in some of the highly specialised STEM occupations, and the transferability of STEM competencies to other categories of occupations, it seems that part of the STEM workforce diverts into non-STEM – fulfilling demand in those fields, especially when wages offered are higher than in STEM occupations.”
Even in non-STEM related fields, the report found STEM degree holders earned more on average than non-STEM degree holders.
“Given this process of diversion and the economy as a whole demanding workers with STEM skills, a picture emerges of a shortage in the available workforce having STEM-related competencies,” the report reads.
Dr Jenine Beekhuyzen, doctor of research and management at Griffith University, says that girls tend to lose interest in studying technology as early as grades 3-4.
“We lose them pretty early,” she says. “If we’re lucky to get them later in life, it's very limited. Right now, for example, I have two girls out of a class of 40 enrolled in IT.
“In terms of performance in technology subjects girls actually out-perform boys, all around the world, but this is just not being reflected across industries.”
The researcher says parental and teacher bias and lack of visible role models are influencing factors in alienating girls from STEM classes.
“There are two reasons the research points to: the lack of visible female role models, and more than ever before there is still not enough understanding of what technical people do.
“You know what a doctor or a teacher does, but IT and STEM-related concepts don’t seem real. It seems kind of made up,” she says. “Parents don’t encourage girls to take up professions in IT because it’s not seen as very stable even though that’s not true, of course.”