By Alejandra Mizala, Director of the Center for Advanced Research on Education Academic of the Industrial Engineering Department, Universidad de Chile / Translated by Anthony Rauld
In many countries, women participate less in the exact sciences and in technology. In 2012, only 14% of women who entered the university for the first time chose an area of study related to science, compared to 39% of men. But even within the sciences, there is gender segmentation, according to data collected through the application of the PISA global education survey, which includes 50 countries; in all of them, the girls oriented towards science demonstrated an interest for biology, agriculture, and health careers, while boys preferred computer science, engineering, and mathematics, differences that hold even when considering the highest performing students.
In our country, the university enrollment of women is higher than that of men, a phenomenon that has existed for many years and that is replicated at other institutions in higher education. Women also have higher graduation rates, an increasing trend. Nationally, at the doctoral level, meanwhile, 44% of those who enrolled during the 2007-2015 period are women and, although the percentage of women enrolled in doctoral programs in engineering and the sciences is higher than the percentage of women enrolled in undergraduate programs of the same areas of study, this proportion is significantly lower in the case of men.
The gender inequality that we detect in the higher education system is linked, and is the product of, a series of inequalities that men and women encounter during their lives. Even though differences in the early years of the education system are not readily observed—for example, girls and boys have similar results on standardized tests in mathematics in fourth grade—significant gaps begin to surface at the end of primary school, and they intensify over time, negatively affecting women.
The evidence available internationally and nationally shows us that these differences are attributed, in large part, to social and cultural factors, which are certainly modifiable with the right policies. In fact, from the early years of life, gender differentiation is evident in the toys parents give to boys and girls, and in the observed differences in expectations parents and teachers have with respect to the child’s present and future performance.
A Fondecyt study we completed with other colleagues focused on pedagogical students and it has helped us to understand how future teachers reproduce gender stereotypes unconsciously and how these affect future pedagogical decisions. We found that future teachers—men and women—tended to underestimate the mathematical abilities of girls, projecting their difficulties over to other areas, something that did not occur with the boys, and did not occur in the area of language.
Other studies in Chile, which have analyzed the interaction between teachers and students in mathematics class, have found that teachers focus less attention (spend less time) on girls, notwithstanding the fact that boys are more active in class. They also show that teachers formulate questions that require more complex cognitive processes and provide more feedback to boys compared to girls. It’s interesting to note that the major differences between boys and girls occur when teachers have less control over the class.
Meanwhile, according to the information coming out of a survey given to the parents of children who took the standardized test PISA, parents have higher expectations in relation to their boys than in relation to their girls when it comes to encouraging them to follow careers in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM), even when both boys and girls show the same performance in mathematics. In Chile, the parents of 50% of the boys expected them to continue in STEM areas, whereas only 17% of the parents of girls expected them to continue in them.
These differences in the degree of STEM participation among women correlate with the gender wage gap, since women tend to be underrepresented in the highest paying jobs, like those in engineering or information technology, focusing instead on careers like sociology or education, which are paid less. At the same time, the development of science, mathematics, engineering and technology loses out on potential talent.
All of this points to the need to have policies that promote gender equality, especially since gender discrimination tends to be unconscious. It is therefore essential to engage in informational campaigns and promote activities, like Comunidad Mujer does, since they help to raise awareness and promote change in the early stages of life. Initiatives like these help to open doors for girls and boys, and to realize that boys also need their expectations widened, so as to realize that they too can excel in careers that today are considered feminine.
It is also fundamental to include the issue of gender transversally in the education programs at universities, as well as in the formation of teachers. Along with this, it is important to review the textbooks, because they are also full of gender stereotypes. It is also crucial to be able to generate awareness in those parents who must also support their children with respect to their professional aspirations. In higher education, it is necessary to promote the acceptance of women in STEM areas of study, as well as to incentivize in the same vein the acceptance of men in areas of study considered to be feminine.
An excellent example of this kind of public policy is the Más Mujeres Program for Engineering and Science, which has existed for three years at the Physical Sciences Department of the Universidad de Chile. It is a program that proposes to increase the participation of women in their classrooms, and to incentivize, through the opening up of 40 positions, the acceptance of women into the Engineering Department (that is, 40 positions more below the last applicant accepted according to the Consejo de Rectores de la Universidades Chilenas, or CRUCH). This program has been very successful, increasing the percentage of first year women from about 19-20% to 27-28%, an increase that cannot be explained only by the additional 40 slots, but also by an increase in women applicants to engineering who were accepted above the minimum average test scores, all of whom have excelled academically.
It is also important to facilitate and promote more female participation in the scientific world, in politics, and in executive positions, since these kinds of role models have an impact on boys and girls. This is fundamental, because the studies that compare international test scores of countries who use the PISA and TIMSS (International Tendencies in the Study of Mathematics and Science) tests show that the gender gap in mathematics performance correlates significantly with women’s economic and social opportunities in the various countries, opportunities, for example, in the labor market, in research positions and in parliamentary government.