Today’s young people need to be prepared to engage in a world with rapidly changing technology and be equipped with the skills to use technology to acquire new knowledge (OECD, 2023). While not every student will leave school wishing to pursue a career in information technology and programming, many future jobs will require workers to be able to use digital technologies to solve various problems.
In 2022, the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) conducted research for CSIRO looking into the factors that support or limit young female students participating in digital technologies education. The research study included 2 stages and was funded by the Australian Government Department of Industry, Science and Resources through the Digital Careers initiative.
Stage 1 was a review of key research, policies, and programs, and was summarised in the Teacher article Digital technologies for everyone: Factors contributing to female participation. Stage 2 has now been completed and was based on an online survey of 129 science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) teachers nationwide, interviews with a small group of tertiary educators in the field, and focus groups with 14–16-year-old students. Based on the findings, several factors that could facilitate greater engagement of young women in digital technologies education were identified.
Increasing the confidence and awareness of educators. Although most STEM teacher respondents felt confident teaching digital technologies, a sizeable proportion of teachers (25%) did not feel confident or felt only slightly confident teaching digital technologies-related subjects, particularly at the primary level. Increasing confidence in these areas and increasing the awareness of the applications of digital technologies and potential career paths could engage and inspire more young women into these subjects. This can be accomplished through specialised teacher professional learning, such as through CSIRO’s Digital Careers program.
Relating digital technologies to real-world, inclusive contexts. Ensuring that the teaching of digital technologies is strongly linked to real-world issues and is inclusive of the diverse experiences and backgrounds of students was raised as a key factor that can increase student engagement. Relatability can be an important factor in engaging all students, particularly for those from under-represented groups.
Addressing the confidence imbalance among students. Both teachers and students felt that boys exhibited higher levels of confidence in many STEM subjects than girls (particularly engineering and technology). It should be noted that confidence is not equivalent to ability, as confidence among students can be misplaced. In addition, a greater proportion of secondary teachers felt boys were more confident than girls in STEM subjects compared to primary teachers, particularly in technology subjects (71% of secondary, compared to 48% of primary teachers). Promoting digital technologies in schools as an inclusive subject area and incorporating it in multiple subject areas could help girls, and all students, gain confidence to pursue this option in high school.
Cultivating interest in STEM/digital technologies from a young age. The research highlighted that many students disengage from STEM when they move from upper primary into high school. Maintaining and building on the interest and confidence girls experience in the primary years is important. Ensuring that young female students are aware of female role models in the area can help to sustain engagement into the early adolescent years.
Challenging the stereotypical portrayal of digital technologies. Teachers and students agreed that the media’s depiction of digital technologies is often gendered and stigmatised as being ‘nerdy’ and ‘uncool’. Opportunities to present a counter-narrative to these portrayals through positive and relatable role models, mentors, and problem-based projects can be effective.
Equipping parents with more information and resources. Students felt that young peoples’ attitudes towards digital technologies subjects were heavily influenced by parents; teacher respondents also felt this way, but slightly less so. One of the barriers that stops parents from encouraging their children, particularly daughters, to explore digital technologies are concerns over cybersafety. Providing parents with resources around how to keep students safe online and the importance of digital technologies education for future careers could be effective for supporting their children to pursue digital technologies education.
Clarifying that gaming/coding are only one aspect of digital technologies. Some respondents felt that students equated digital technologies subjects with gaming, with some students becoming disillusioned when these subjects involved more basic problem-solving and logical thinking. Ensuring accurate information about subjects is circulated throughout schools, giving students opportunities to help drive project ideas and inquiry areas, and finding confident teachers to guide students are all ways forward to address these misconceptions about the subject area.
A greater focus on encouraging young women to take digital technologies subjects and degrees. Digital technologies tertiary participants in the research highlighted that female students had similar attrition rates compared to their male counterparts, but that, overall, far fewer young women were taking these courses. Greater representation at the tertiary level in terms of female academics and research supervisors could be effective. In addition, as more female students pursue these degrees, supportive peer networks can be developed.
Addressing the gender imbalance in digital technologies education and careers is an important goal. The research highlighted several areas where educators can contribute.
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). (n.d.). PISA 2025 Learning in the Digital World. OECD. https://www.oecd.org/pisa/innovation/learning-digital-world/
For more information about CSIRO’s STEM education programs please visit www.csiro.au/education
Do you know what the situation is in your own school or class? Is there a gender imbalance in STEM-related subjects?
One strategy for sustaining engagement into the early adolescent years highlighted by this research is to ensure young female students are aware of female role models in the area. When was the last time you invited a female role model to an event at your school? How could you make this happen for an upcoming event or unit of work?