Calling all girl scientists: climate change needs you

Two teenage girls working in a high school science class

By Clara Young

Senior Editor, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

“I took a class in high school that connected science to the world around us, and there was an assignment we had to do …[that] had us look in the science section of the Boston Globe…” Shreya Dave said in a podcast recently. “There was always one article, maybe two, about either a species that was going extinct because of human reasons or climate change… And then we’d have to talk about how that relates to the science, and we had to write a little piece about it.”

Something about the way that class was taught clicked with Dave. She stayed with science after finishing high school and completed an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For her PhD thesis, she developed a game-changing green technology: a graphene-oxide-based membrane that can reduce thermal energy use in industrial chemical filtering processes by 90%. Dave has now brought her innovative membrane to market as CEO of her company, Via Separations.

There is growing demand for scientific applications like Sheya Dave’s as countries look for ways to cut carbon emissions. The Occupational Information Network (O*NET), sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor/Employment and Training Administration, pegs the importance of science knowledge and skills at 2.52 on a scale of 1 to 5 for newer occupations, nearly half of which are classified as green jobs.  Many of these new green jobs, like photonic engineers and biofuels production managers, suggest that science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) are crucial as economies shift to net-zero carbon emissions. Compare O*NET’s 2.52 science-importance rating for newer jobs, for example, with their rating for older occupations: 1.89.

Those studying STEM today will shape the technology of tomorrow

STEM is key to carbon-transitioning societies; yet, not enough young women are stepping up to the plate. Only 14% of 15-year-old girls who scored well on PISA 2018’s math and science components planned to study and work in science and engineering. Compare this to over 26% of boys who scored equally well and expected to continue in STEM. Not all countries showed a gender gap in STEM career expectations. There was none in Estonia, Finland, Poland and Slovenia, for example, where 15% of boys and girls were top performers in math and science. But, in many other countries, the difference between boys and girls rose higher than 15 percentage points, and in a few, more than 20.

PISA 2015 found most girls who wanted to pursue further science training after school envisioned themselves in the health profession… Boys saw themselves as ICT experts, scientists and engineers

The PISA 2015 results, which focused on science, tell us more. One in three girls who scored high in the science and math sections of the test said they planned to go on to further STEM study. Overall, 25% of boys and 24% of girls said they would pursue further science training after high school. Most girls envisioned themselves in the health profession. Boys, on the other hand, saw themselves as information and communications technology (ICT) experts, scientists and engineers. These are the “tough tech” jobs that a serious carbon transition needs: retrofitting and redesigning energy-inefficient surface transport, infrastructure, and industry, and developing renewable energy sources.

Girls perform just as well as boys in STEM at school

It’s not that girls can’t do science and math – they can. But few are doing what Sheya Dave did, which is going on to study STEM after high school. PISA 2015 showed that 49% of 15-year-old girls on average in the 67 participating countries/economies scored high in reading, math and science. But a 2018 study found that only 28% of women graduated from university with a STEM degree between 2012 and 2015. And it’s not that girls are good at math and science but don’t particularly like them. They do. Of the 49% of girls who scored high overall in PISA 2015, 41% reported they were interested in science, liked it and thought they were good at it.

Girls’ reluctance to pursue STEM sets the stage for who develops tomorrow’s technology. Women comprise only 15% of patent-holders in all technologies in OECD countries. The share of women inventors is even lower for environmental technologies. That said, the green technologies women are involved in are in emerging solar and climate-change adaptation technologies as opposed to traditional climate-change mitigation technologies in transport and wind power. This is likely because the latter need more engineering education and training, attracting fewer women.

Breaking down stereotypes needs to start early

There is something about engineering that is particularly anchored in teenage aspirations. People who pursued careers in engineering (along with the natural sciences and  health sectors),  were those who showed interest in these areas when they were teenagers, a UK National Child Development Study concludes – it looked at what 16-year-olds said they wanted to do in 1991 and what they ended up doing when they were 33. Another long study, in the US, which followed students from age 13 to 30, finds that teenagers who expected to work in science were 3.4 times more likely to study and work in engineering or the physical sciences than those who didn’t have those aspirations in high school.

Where do these teenage boys get the idea they want to be scientists or engineers? From childhood. The 2018 Drawing the Future survey run by Education and Employers polled 20,000 children between the ages of 7 and 11 from all over the world and found four times more boys than girls wanted to be engineers. And, nearly twice as many boys as girls wanted to be scientists.

Children are overwhelmingly influenced by family, TV, movies and radio in what they want to grow up to be. In the survey, less than 1% of children learned about jobs from someone visiting their school.

If we want more girls to grow up to do STEM, the work of breaking down gender stereotypes starts in primary school

If we want more girls to grow up to do STEM, the work of breaking down gender stereotypes starts in primary school. A surprising role model who comes to the classroom to talk about her job is a powerful way to do that.

High schools can build on this. Career guidance counsellors, internships, job-shadowing, and jobs fair and work-site visits can inform teenage girls about careers they might not have known about or considered. More girls might just get it in their heads to stay with STEM. And, like Sheya Dave, those who do won’t be left out of tomorrow’s green economy; they’ll help build it.

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Photo: Shutterstock/Monkey Business Images