Childhood clues to career esteem

Much of the world moves forward on the so-called STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – so why do brilliant young women shy away from STEM careers?

Story Rebecca Jennings

Celia Vandestadt isn’t your stereotypical research scientist. She’s young. Female. Wears a bright-red lab coat.

The 28-year-old PhD student is passionate about her research career in the Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute at Monash University, but it wasn’t the path she mapped out at school.

When selecting her senior subjects, Ms Vandestadt was faced with self-doubt. Maths and science – stress-free choices in her younger years – suddenly seemed daunting.

“I was scared of not doing well, as the subjects got harder,” she recalls. “I was afraid of failing.”

So she chose biology, a prerequisite for her preferred undergraduate degree, but opted out of advanced mathematics.

It’s a challenge Professor Helen Watt, Faculty of Education at Monash University, has seen young women face throughout her two decades of researching why students do or don’t study science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects.

Figures from the US show that the five per cent of the workforce who work in STEM contribute 50 per cent of sustainable economic growth. STEM fuels the critical engines of innovation and growth. Just 0.5 per cent of Australian university graduates are in mathematics and science – half the OECD average.
Professor Helen Watt

She’s analysing the data from a study (2012-16) involving 1172 students from nine Catholic, independent and government-run, co-educational and single-sex schools in Melbourne and Sydney.

These studies paint a picture of what students think and feel as they make educational and career decisions to follow the STEM pipeline.

It turns out that students’ interests and perception of their own ability are the biggest drivers when deciding whether to opt in or out of STEM disciplines, and there also seems to be a glass ceiling above STEM careers.

Professor Watt’s studies show that girls consider maths to be more difficult than boys do, and believe they’re less capable, despite there being no gender difference in actual ability. Australian Council for Educational Research figures show that girls are more likely instead to opt for senior subjects in arts or humanities.

Boys, however, don’t lack this self-confidence. They’re drawn to advanced mathematics and physical sciences – especially if they have higher socio-economic status – or technical and computer sciences.

Professor Helen Watt (right), founder and coordinator of the international
network Gender and STEM, with PhD student Celia Vandestadt.

“This trend translates to university and career,” Professor Watt says. “Boys follow pathways to higher-paying, higher-prestige jobs in mathematics and science, while girls choose careers they believe will make a social contribution.”

Ms Vandestadt can relate – she chose myotherapy (a health discipline focused on relieving musculoskeletal pain) as her undergraduate degree as a fast-track to helping people.

But does it really matter how gender and STEM interact? Professor Watt doesn't hesitate to answer that it does: From a social perspective, it is wasted talent. Women are just as capable in STEM as males, and they certainly don't prefer lower-salary or lower-status careers. They choose lower STEM careers because they believe they're not capable, are less interested, or because they perceive STEM workplaces as not being family-friendly.

This brain drain translates to a shortage of teachers coming through the STEM education pipeline, with 40 to 45 per cent of Year 7 to 10 maths and science teachers in Australia teaching outside their field.

Career of choice

Could the solution be to make maths and science compulsory throughout school? Professor Watt doesn’t believe so. “In the US, senior high school mathematics is compulsory for university attendance regardless of discipline. However, forcing students to study these subjects at school isn’t translating into more STEM degrees or careers.”

She says the real question should be how to demonstrate that maths and science can be useful in the careers to which girls are attracted.

One catalyst for change could be as simple as tweaking school timetables: “Schools tend to partition disciplines, and often maths and science clash with humanities on school timetables, which essentially forces students to choose one distinct path. Faced with this, girls can turn away from maths and sciences.”


The gender imbalance in STEM careers is a global phenomenon with distinct cultural delineations. Every few years The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) tests students in 65 developed countries, and in a representative sample of 15-year-olds, girls generally outperform boys in science. This doesn’t translate to career choices in Western societies such as the US, UK and Canada, but it does in regions such as Russia, Asia and the Middle East, where more women than men take up science and maths careers. US researchers believe the ‘stereotype threat’ in terms of gender roles in occupations originates in early childhood, suggesting clear cultural influences.

Pop culture could even play a role. Professor Watt would love to see a STEM version of the legal TV dramas credited for a surge in law careers.

She says it’s also important to engage students from a young age, as self-concepts about ability are formed from as early as Year 2, and to create ‘mastery’ learning environments that focus on supporting students, as opposed to competitive, performance-based environments.

While Ms Vandestadt’s love of learning eventually drew her to research as the ultimate quest for knowledge, she has some stern words for her high-school self:

“‘Don’t be afraid to be challenged, and study maths’ – it would have come in handy for all the programming and statistics involved in my research now.”

Ms Vandestadt is now working on an initiative with other PhD students, drawing on support from Westpac and guidance from Professor Watt, to improve STEM awareness and education among young children and their parents.