Around the world, the education of women is seen as a key driver of economic growth and national prosperity.
According to the World Bank, better educated women are healthier, earn higher incomes and are happier.
However, preparing young women for the future workplace is an area in which Australia is lagging behind.
This is an issue not lost on NSW Education Department Secretary, Mark Scott, who addressed the Committee for Economic Development of Australia’s (CEDA) Women in Leadership Series at the Hilton Hotel on Friday.
Scott said that when it comes to the more practical and challenging STEM subjects, the gender inequality participation rate is “stark”.
“Only 5% of students doing 2 unit engineering and science subjects in HSC are girls while only 15% of students doing information and digital technology programs are girls,” he said.
This is due, in part, he added to “a complex combination of factors” such as the removal of university prerequisites which drawn students out of mathematics studies.
He also pointed to a broadening of the curriculum offerings that has allowed students to pursue their areas of interest more broadly than was once the case.
However, Scott said that students’ perception of their own abilities – particularly when it comes to studying mathematics – played the most important part.
“Research indicates that it is perception about strengths in mathematics that is a key driver to subject selection – and subject selection is a key driver to career pathways and broader vocational pathways,” he pointed out.
“Mathematics has been found to be a critical filter which limits future participation and opportunity to high status and high salary fields – and it’s a gendered issue.”
Scott said girls tend to report being less interested in mathematics and to consider themselves less able despite equivalent achievement with boys.
“The research is quite clear. You can have girls and boys with similar educational outcomes and levels of achievement, but girls’ perception of their ability to go on and have success in mathematics is lower,” he said.
“And so girls’ lower self-concepts, or perhaps boys’ inflated self-concepts, translates into patterns of gender participation that advantages boys’ achievement prospects despite their being no corresponding achievement differences.”
Scott said resolving this issue requires a change of mindset in the early years of schooling and a more considered way of measuring STEM outcomes.
He added that while STEM experiments are happening across Australia, they are not being approached in the same way as medical research.
“We need double blind trials, fully controlled experiments and documentation of data so that when something works and works well, we can scale it quickly and effectively,” he said.
“A lot of our activity and work in this area at the moment is experimental, piecemeal, uncoordinated and not designed in an agile way that would allow great insights, when they emerge, to be scaled and replicated around the country.”
The NSW Education Department is continuing to hold a series of conversations around the future skills that will be required.
“At the moment, the Department is doing intensive work around Artificial Intelligence [AI]. We’ve also established seven STEM action schools to mentor and share initiatives around STEM practices and programs,” Scott said.
“Three of these schools are single-sex girls’ schools, and they are connecting with other schools to find innovative ways to inspire students to take more challenging STEM subjects in senior years and to follow pathways for STEM-related careers.”
He said a goal for each of these schools was to help experienced staff to lead a community of practice in the teaching of STEM across NSW.
Scott said that moving forward, the challenges that Australian schools face will take a “collective effort of educators, businesses, politicians and the broader community”.
“A young child who started kindergarten this year will start university in 2030. Young people will spend most of their working lives in the second half of the 21st century. Many of them will live through to the 22nd century,” he said.
“So when we think about how our schools function, how they operate and the skills our young people need, this is not science fiction.
“This is not a question for 20 or 30 years from now. We will reap the dividend of the decisions and investments we are making today with children in our classrooms.”