Inclusion in STEM

Inclusion in STEM

An inventory of barriers and levers for inclusion in STEM studies and jobs.

In support of the STEM agenda 2030 of the Flemish government, we set up a study in which we looked for explanatory factors in the academic literature as to why people choose or don’t choose STEM studies and jobs. After all, the idea is that everyone should be able to cope with the social transitions by acquiring STEM competencies, among other things. However, certain groups (e.g. women and ethnic minorities) seem to show less interest in STEM, and do not or seldomly flow into STEM studies and jobs. Therefore, inclusion must be taken into account so that everyone who wants and everyone with talent, regardless of gender, age, ethnicity or socioeconomic situation (SES) can participate in STEM. In this article, we elaborate on a selection of explanatory factors. For the full overview, you can consult the report here (in Dutch).

First, stereotypes living in society regarding STEM (jobs) have an impact on the individual attitudes and choices of certain target groups. For example, one study shows that there are better gender distributions in STEM, especially in mathematics (both in choices and outcomes), in countries where there is more gender equality. In addition, the stereotype that people of a certain ethnic origin would be better or worse at certain competencies affects their chances of being hired into certain positions. For example, that people of Asian origin are automatically good at programming or that people of African-American origin would be less academically gifted.

Second, parents, acquaintances and peers help keep these social norms and stereotypes alive. For example, higher-educated parents seem more likely to steer their children toward STEM (in education or leisure). Employing (successful) role models (e.g., peers or teachers) leverages the choice of STEM. However, these role models should have similar backgrounds (such as gender, ethnicity, age and socio-economic status), so that the target group can identify with them and gain the confidence that it is also feasible for them. If this requirement is not met, role models can be counterproductive in the choice of STEM.

Thirdly, the perception of job opportunities is an important factor in the (continued) choice for STEM. This takes into account whether a job is appealing, whether there are enough jobs available, whether there is work-life balance, and what the salary will be. The salary plays less of a role for women than for men, for them a good work-life balance is more important. Whether someone finds a job appealing also appears to be gender-sensitive. Women are more inclined to choose jobs that deal with people, while men tend to choose jobs that are focused on things. Moreover, women are reputedly deterred from jobs dominated by men.

Finally, participating in informal STEM activities (e.g., summer camps, STEM competitions, STEM academies...) has a positive effect on competencies, interest (even after controlling for existing STEM interest) and attitudes toward science and engineering. There are indications that the "low-stakes" nature of the activities, where there is no testing, has positive effects on, for example, ethnic minorities and women who have a fear of failure.