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New research: Accessible university pathways empower women in STEM

The strong academic performance of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) degrees could be better reflected in career outcomes by addressing access and post-graduation barriers, the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) reports.

New research, led by Dr Julie McMillan and funded by the NCSEHE, has found women commonly outperformed their peers in STEM subjects but were among other equity groups requiring targeted interventions during the transitions into, and out of, university.

“Entry rates to university for many equity groups are low, relative to national averages and non-disadvantaged groups,” Dr McMillan said.

“However, our findings show that, for those from equity groups who do go to university, the proportion who choose a STEM pathway is similar to the national average.”

Although high numbers of students are enrolling in STEM fields, the research found equity group students in STEM had lower completion rates than those in other educational fields.

Women were found to be less likely to enrol in STEM courses than other students, with less than one in eight women who began university within this cohort enrolling in a STEM field. For those that did commence a STEM pathway, however, completion rates were high.

“The transition from school to university and from university into the STEM workforce are two critical areas, particularly for women and people from low socioeconomic status backgrounds,” co-author Dr Daniel Edwards said.

“Graduate outcomes for women were notably adverse, with less than a quarter of those who commenced a STEM pathway employed in a STEM-related occupation by the age of 25.”

To improve pathways and outcomes for disadvantaged students in the future, the report found that demonstrating to young people the value and applicability of mathematics in early adolescence was a key determinant of students’ future persistence in STEM.

“Australian students who saw the utility of mathematics skills for further study and work were more likely to pursue a STEM pathway, even after controlling for mathematics achievement,” Dr Edwards said.

“Improving instrumental motivation in mathematics could have a positive outcome for equity group students in terms of further participation in STEM.”

NCSEHE Director Professor Sarah O’Shea highlighted the importance of this research for ensuring the success of equity group students in STEM fields.

“This research allows for an improved awareness of the diverse STEM pathways of equity group students,” Professor O’Shea said.

“Understanding these pathways, and ensuring valuable support is granted in key areas, is integral to a more equitable future for disadvantaged students.”

Read the full report, STEM Pathways: The impact of equity, motivation and prior achievement 

This research was conducted under the NCSEHE Research Grants Program, funded by the Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment.

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Nina-Marie Thomas
NCSEHE Media and Communications Officer
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Posted 7 July 2021 Posted in