Fewer women opt for STEM

  • Nation
  • Sunday, 23 Jul 2017

Future demand: A file photo of students conducting experiments in a lab. Malaysia needs at least one million science and technology human capital by 2020.

PETALING JAYA: It appears that Malaysian girls are not aiming to break the STEM glass ceiling yet.

That’s the acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics where the enrolment of females in these subjects is at a low level.

And women made up less than half of the graduates in engineering and technology in 2015.

“Long-time stereotyping has made women feel like they’re not as valued as their male counterparts.

“This led to self-doubt. Women are also seen as not good enough, and not suitable, for these roles,” said Academy of Sciences Malaysia (ASM) Fellow Prof Datuk Dr Halimaton Hamdan.

However, she made clear that there was no gender bias in the supply of STEM talent.

Dr Halimaton’s concern was that the lower female participation in STEM would mean fewer female role models for girls.

This would affect young women’s choices for furthering their career in STEM sectors, she said, adding that this was one of the greatest barriers to attracting females into occupations that may traditionally be viewed as predominantly male.

“STEM must be the driver of the innovation economy to fuel the future and enhance our social wellbeing,” she said.

Malaysia needs at least one million science and technology human capital by 2020, especially with the emergence of new sectors like nanotechnology.

Dr Halimaton said that STEM occupations for women should not be confined to “traditional” jobs like mechanical and electrical engineering.

“Software programmers, data scientists, statisticians and systems analysts are also in demand.

“The right ecosystem to cultivate a STEM workforce is needed. This must start in schools,” she said.

To spur interest in science and mathematics, ASM has started inquiry-based science education in Selangor, Sabah, Kedah and Terengganu.

“Teachers from selected schools are trained to carry out interesting ways of learning. It’s very different from the traditional classroom method,” she said.

Students are also being sent for industry attachment and training.

Dr Halimaton said that both the public and private sectors must contribute to enhance teacher education.

She suggests that teachers be trained in “gender responsive teaching strategies” so that female and male students can develop their full potential in STEM-related subjects.

“Such interventions could include teacher recruitment and training policies,” she said.

On July 6, Deputy Education Minister Datuk P. Kamalanathan said only 47% of school students opted for the science stream – short of the targeted 60:40 ratio of science and technical stream students to arts students.

He said the National STEM Transformation Plan 2017-2025 was expected to be completed by this year or early next year to address the declining number of students joining the science stream and taking up STEM courses for their tertiary education.

Despite substantial investment in STEM education, the nation’s first Science Outlook report, launched last year, showed that interest among students is dropping.

Malaysia had set a target ratio of 60:40 science-to-non-science students at the upper secondary school level.

In 2010, the ratio of science to non-science students was 48:52.

But in 2014, the ratio stood at 47:53 with 29% of Form Five students enrolled in the pure science stream.

Dr Halimaton said the challenge was to increase the number of students in STEM to achieve the 60:40 ratio by 2020.

“There are no specific programmes to promote STEM among girls.

“But there are some policies and initiatives that must be put in place by the education sector to stimulate STEM interest among both male and female students,” she said.

The 2015 ASM’s Science Outlook Report highlighted that only 21% of students who sat for the PMR were eligible to be enrolled into the science stream in 2014.

This shows that interest in science and mathematics is decreasing in schools.

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