A recent report has highlighted the negative impact of gender discrimination on the outcomes of young women.
The study by Monash and Melbourne University researchers found that gender discrimination by male staff and students in university lectures, tutorials and group work can make female STEM students feel unwelcome and lead to them withdrawing from science majors, particularly in gender-unbalanced fields like physics and maths.
Camilla Fisher, Associate Professor Christopher Thompson and Dr Rowan Brookes surveyed 400 undergraduate students attending eight Australian tertiary institutions in 2019 and 2020 about their experiences of gender discrimination while studying STEM.
Fisher said some of the results of the study were surprising and alarming, with female, non-binary and transgender students reporting significant gender discrimination.
“The negative attitudes from young men – their frustrations at being sidelined was a surprise,” Fisher told The Educator.
“The results of this study highlight potential ‘at-risk’ groups for attrition in the STEM fields and provide an insight into the male student perspective on gender equity in STEM.”
The study found that female students were the most likely group to experience bias and sexism, particularly when taking part in group work where students work together in small groups.
Girls reported being talked over, interrupted, disregarded, ‘mansplained’ and, on occasion, intimidated by male students and lecturers not allowing them to speak.
In particular, female students reported experiencing discrimination and bias in group work situations where “male students tend to dominate active learning classroom environments”.
One female student told the researchers that:
‘Many boys feel the need to speak over girls and treat us as if our opinion is immediately wrong and that we are stupid. I have experienced this my entire course and [this] was the reason I dropped second-semester first-year chemistry.’
In an interesting finding from the study, girls were more strongly inclined than boys to pursue a science career in the gender-unbalanced fields of physics and mathematics. Over 50% of girls taking these majors strongly agreed that they would like to have a career in science compared with less than 30% of boys.
However, the researchers pointed out that may be because many of the students in the study were already in second year and, write the study authors, appear to have displayed “a certain ‘grittiness’ when it comes to pursuing these career pathways”, whereas the experiences of girls who had already dropped out of STEM degrees due to discrimination were not captured in the study.
Fisher, Thompson and Brookes said students affected by discrimination are at risk of decreased belonging and engagement in STEM fields.
With female students being the most likely to experience bias and sexism, their study concludes that there is a need for significant change at universities, both in the delivery of STEM lectures and tutorials, as well as in relation to the dynamics of group work where girls report being excluded, talked over, interrupted, mansplained and even intimidated by male staff and students.
“Further work into intervention studies to create more gender equitable classrooms is warranted,” write the study authors, “particularly in the Australian context.”
A 2018 study from the University of Queensland found girls in single-sex schools had equal levels of confidence as boys, which led the researchers to conclude that women’s self-confidence is eroded by factors such as sexism and gender stereotyping.
Executive Officer of the Alliance of Girls’ Schools Australasia (AGSA), Loren Bridge, said girls' schools create an environment that allows girls to be themselves both inside and outside the classroom.
"The campus of an all-girls school provides an environment tailored specifically to the needs of girls, and that includes giving girls the skills, confidence and opportunities to reach their leadership potential," Bridge told The Educator.
"We know just how entrenched gender stereotypes still are for women when we look at the statistics on gender representation on boards and in CEO positions".
Bridge said it is vital to raise the visibility of female role models for girls, particularly those succeeding in leadership roles.
"Girls' schools do exactly this, showcasing their alumnae and also their female school leaders as strong role models amplifying the message that girls can be leaders," she said.
"Of course, in a girls' school every leadership position is held by a girl, not just 50% of positions but 100%, so the opportunities to lead are there for girls, and girls feel supported, willing to take a risk and put their hand up for a leadership role".