The fourth objective of sustainable development (SDG) of the UN calls us to “guarantee an inclusive, equitable and quality education for all”. To provide citizens with the necessary competencies so that they can participate in the functioning of society actively and successfully, the STEAM label (Science, Technology, Engineering, etc.) has been strongly adopted, especially in the educational field. Arts and Mathematics for its acronym in English).
In addition to trying to equip citizens with the STEAM skills necessary for them to function fully in today’s society, there is also an interest in reducing the differences in the preference of boys and girls for STEAM academic and professional opportunities. This “vocational segregation” is materialized in the inclination of girls towards university degrees in the humanities, social sciences, and health branches and, on the contrary, the greater attraction of boys to studies related to engineering.
The role of education is, therefore, strategic to ensure that the objectives of having a STEAM literate society and with attractive academic and professional opportunities in this field are a reality and also achieve it with equity. The challenge is ambitious and a look at recent data reveals the distance to achieve it. The “White Book of Mathematics” (coordinated by the Royal Spanish Mathematical Society in collaboration with the Ramón Areces Foundation) includes the results published in the international assessment of knowledge of mathematics and science TIMMS.
This study allows us to have data on fourth-grade education (9-10 years) and observe that there is a gender gap in mathematics at an early age. The data obtained in mathematics in Spain (table) indicate significant differences between boys and girls in the tests of 2011, 2015, and 2019. In the three studies, the difference in mathematics is increasing slightly (11 points in 2011, 12 points in 2015, and 14 points in 2019) and is among the largest of all participating countries. In the 2019 edition, the differences in favor of boys are only greater in Canada, Cyprus, and Portugal.
To try to reduce this gender gap, multiple studies and initiatives have been promoted. These include the ‘Hypatia’ project funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020, which aims to develop a theoretical framework on gender-inclusive STEAM education, as well as producing, testing, and promoting a set of tools with practical solutions and modules for schools, science centers, museums, and research institutions. Among the materials, the module “Gender inclusion in science education” developed by the Danish Science Center Experimentarium in Hellerup (Denmark) and, specifically, a collection of four videos stands out. In them, Jo Kroyer from the Danish University of Technology reflects on the beliefs of primary school teachers regarding the different behaviors between boys and girls in the science classroom: they are expected to be more moved and disruptive and to be calmer, sit longer and follow a more academic model.
These beliefs contrast, in the light of Kroyer’s research, with the classroom observations the researchers made. In these observations, differences were found when it came to labeling behaviors by teachers, fitting more with their preconceptions than with the behaviors that the researchers observed. He gives the example of girls, with behaviors that the researchers saw as disruptive, who were not labeled as such by the teachers. Among the beliefs of primary school teachers, Korver also highlights that, although girls are seen with more exemplary academic behavior, teachers perceive boys as more interesting students. This implies, for example, that they tend to have more scientifically stimulating conversations with boys and, therefore, perpetuate beliefs about differences in interest and capacities for STEAM in terms of gender.
In the same vein, Couso in the conference “Science is not for me” cites three concrete examples of gender bias that can be found in classrooms from Scantlebury’s research. The first example is regarding attributing the success of the girls in STEAM to their effort and hard work and instead of the boys to their talent. A second example is regarding interaction in the classroom: when a boy does not know how to answer a question, he is reformulated and waits for him to answer it, whereas in girls the question is usually passed on to someone else.
This difference in behavior is due to the expectations about knowledge in the responses given to boys and girls, giving boys a second chance since they are expected to know how to respond as opposed to girls. The third example is regarding team tasks and the different roles that boys and girls play: they tend to use the equipment with a more active role in the task in charge and, on the other hand, girls tend to play the role of secretary and are in charge of the data collection and results. These investigations are not directly transferable to our educational environment, but the different examples do allow us to reflect on small behaviors that can occur in classrooms or other educational spaces, already from primary education, and that can hinder the empowerment of girls and women. real gender equality.
Finally, an infographic made within the TWIST (Towards Women In Science and Technology) project is linked to give teachers concrete and useful tools to promote equal treatment of students in the classroom, workshops, or conferences. Among the different recommendations, the following stand out. Set a high level of expectations for both girls and boys. Encourage girls to participate in class as much as boys. Be sure to ask high-cognitive girls questions and avoid initiating further interaction with boys at a higher cognitive level Use various methods to solve problems and challenges to better suit the learning styles of all students.
Wait 4 to 5 seconds before requesting an answer to a question. Girls tend to wait until they have formulated the full answer before raising their hands, while boys tend to raise their hands immediately and then formulate the answer; delaying the request for an answer helps the whole class to respond, thus giving boys and girls an equal chance to think about it. Encourage all students to increase their STEAM studies. Teacher encouragement plays an important role in helping your students make decisions, therefore it is important to encourage girls to participate in extracurricular math and science programs. Present the contributions of men and women in the advancement of science and technology.
In particular, allowing girls to identify with successful women to help them develop their self-esteem and feel that they are “not alone” in a male environment. Also use contemporary models, trying to invite women scientists to the classroom who dedicate themselves to fields traditionally considered masculine. Dates such as February 11, International Day of Women and Girls in Science, are important to make the situation visible and promote initiatives to end a gender gap that harms the entire society.