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Challenging the Norm: A Feminist Reflection on Gender Expectations in STEM Education

Updated: Aug 28, 2023


In our society, gender expectations often cast long shadows over the paths we choose, subtly guiding our steps from an early age. Within the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), these expectations can forge invisible barriers, leading girls and boys down divergent paths. But what ignites these expectations? And how deeply are they etched into our homes, schools, and minds?

I was privileged to grow up in a family where gender did not dictate dreams or ambitions. Girls and boys alike were nurtured to reach for the stars, to explore without boundaries. Yet, even in such an empowering environment, I discovered hidden biases lurking in the corners of my educational journey.

What happens when societal expectations clash with personal aspirations? When a path, once clear and inviting, suddenly bristles with unforeseen obstacles? How do these invisible barriers shape the choices and opportunities for girls and women in STEM?

Join me as we embark on a reflective journey, peeling back the layers of gender expectations, uncovering hidden biases, and exploring the profound impact they have on our lives and choices. Together, we'll challenge the norm, question the status quo, and take a courageous step towards a world where talent and passion, not gender, define our destinies.

A Personal Journey through STEM Education

My First Experience with Gender Expectations

I was an all-rounder student who excelled in Mathematics right from primary school. I loved Mathematics… I still do. Can you remember a subject that made you feel alive, that sparked joy in your heart? Mathematics was it for me. My teachers never underestimated my mathematical abilities, and they encouraged me to participate in contests, many of which I won. Whereas at the time, I never thought about my career, in retrospect, I realise that I would have loved to pursue a profession related to Mathematics.

My first experience with gender biases in education was during my fourth year in high school when I was expected to make a choice in subjects. Seeing that Mathematics was my best subject, I chose Physics, Chemistry, and Mathematics for my advanced level high school. My teachers felt otherwise, arguing that girls were better suited for Medicine rather than Engineering. I do not blame my teachers, for they were also not aware of their prejudice, having been socialised to believe and act that way. Have you ever felt that others' expectations were limiting your choices? I did not realise it then, but that is how I feel now.

The Influence of Gender Bias on My Educational Choices

At the time, I was unaware that my teachers’ unconscious bias, urging me to opt for Biology, was a manifestation of "doing" gender. What has resonated with me and continues to influence my thinking is that my gender seemed to predetermine my career path, with certain professions or areas being labelled as either female or male domains.

Under the “guidance” of my teachers, I opted for Physics, Chemistry, and Biology, unaware that my aversion to blood and certain creatures would hinder my performance in Biology. The final Biology practical examination involved dissecting a rat. I could not bear to look at it, so I dissected it without watching and "displayed" it. The mismatch between what I had displayed and what I had drawn and labelled led to a below par performance in Biology. Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you were pushed into something that did not align with your true self? That was me with Biology, and me with the sight of blood, rats, frogs, etc.

This experience serves as a stark reminder of how societal expectations and biases can shape our choices and paths, even when we are not consciously aware of them. It underscores the importance of self-awareness, mentorship, and guidance in helping girls and women navigate the often complex landscape of STEM education and careers. By reflecting on our personal journeys and the barriers we have faced, we can work towards a more inclusive and empowering future for all. Together, we can challenge these norms, can we not?

Barriers to the Participation of Girls and Women in STEM Education

Girls' Poor Self-Esteem Girls often suffer from lower self-esteem in STEM subjects, viewing them as male domains. This perception can lead to a lack of confidence in their own abilities and, therefore, reluctance to pursue STEM fields.

Societal Expectations and Stereotypes The expectations that girls face in STEM often begin at home and are reinforced in schools and society at large. Girls are often steered towards certain subjects, limiting their opportunities and choices in STEM fields.

A study by the University of Washington found that gender stereotypes about mathematics negatively affect girls' math self-concept, interest, and performance. For instance, by the age of six, girls are less likely than boys to describe their own gender as 'brilliant', and less likely to join an activity labelled for 'very, very smart' kids (Full report).

Women's Underrepresentation in STEM – A Global Challenge

Lack of Female Role Models in STEM The absence of women in STEM professions can deter girls from pursuing these fields, perpetuating the cycle of underrepresentation.

Educational System Biases Sometimes, the educational system itself can be biased, pushing girls towards certain subjects and away from others, reflecting and reinforcing societal expectations.

UNESCO (2017) highlights the systemic barriers faced by girls and women in STEM education, including biased teaching materials, gendered classroom dynamics, and lack of encouragement from teachers (UNESCO Document).

Gendered STEM Career Ascriptions Societal norms often label certain STEM careers as 'for women' or 'for men,' guiding individuals towards or away from specific paths based on gender.

A report by the OECD found that even when girls perform as well as boys in science, they are less likely to envision a career in STEM. This is often linked to societal perceptions and the way STEM careers are presented as 'male' domains (OECD: Why Don't More Girls Choose STEM Careers?)

These barriers, ranging from personal self-esteem to societal expectations and educational biases, collectively contribute to the underrepresentation of girls and women in STEM. By understanding and addressing these barriers, we can work towards a more inclusive and empowering future for all in STEM.

The Real-World Impact: What Happens When We Limit Women's Opportunities in STEM?

Limiting Career Opportunities: Missing Out on Bright Minds and Innovative Ideas

By steering girls away from STEM subjects, we are not only limiting their individual career opportunities but also restricting the diversity of perspectives and ideas in these fields. A more inclusive STEM workforce is not just about fulfilling individual dreams; it is about unveiling innovative solutions we might otherwise never discover.

Stifling Economic Growth: Underutilising Talent

By limiting women's participation in STEM fields, we are not just holding back half of our population; we are restraining our economic growth and innovation. Attempting to advance without fully utilising women's talents in STEM is akin to trying to run a race with one leg tied up.

Social Justice: The Divide between the Gender Promise and Inequality

We talk a lot about equality, but what does it mean in practical terms? It means affording girls the same opportunities for success in STEM as boys. This is not merely about fairness; it is about social justice, human rights, and constructing a society where everyone has the opportunity to excel.

The barriers to the participation of girls and women in STEM education have far-reaching implications, affecting individual career paths, economic prosperity, and societal equality.

Concluding Reflections: Towards Equality in STEM Education

The path to equality in STEM education is neither smooth nor straightforward. It is a winding road, marked by societal barriers that reflect deeply ingrained norms defining gender roles. The challenges faced by women in STEM - from stereotypes and biases to a lack of role models - are not isolated hurdles but symbolic of a broader cultural landscape. They hinder innovation, stifle economic growth, and obstruct social fairness. In short, they matter to us all.

A Path Forward: The pursuit of gender equality in STEM is not a battle to be fought alone. It is a shared journey that requires awareness, action, and unrelenting determination. We must challenge entrenched norms, dismantle barriers, and cultivate opportunities. Together, we hold the power to forge a future where girls and women stand unbounded in STEM, contributing to a society that thrives on inclusivity, innovation, and justice.

Join the Conversation!

  • Reflect on: Have you ever felt the sting of gender bias? Witnessed it curtail dreams and ambitions? Share your stories, feelings, and the steps taken to rise above.

  • Consider: What can we each do to champion gender equality in STEM? How can we collaborate to create a nurturing, empowering environment?

  • Ask Questions: Your curiosity fuels our conversation. Ask, explore, and let us unravel answers together.

  • Connect with Others: Connect with Others: Engage, respond, build connections. Our community grows through interaction and shared insights.

  • Respectful Dialogue: Embrace diversity but uphold respect. Your voice is welcome here, as is your empathy. Check out our commenting guidelines for more details.

  • Social Sharing: Found resonance in these words? Share this post, spread the awareness, and be a part of the change.

About the Author

Nite Tanzarn is an Independent International Consultant, known for her advocacy in gender equality and women's rights. Through Mama's Reflective Musings, she shares personal experiences and insights, exploring barriers and opportunities for girls and women in STEM. Nite's writings resonate with authenticity and inclusivity, reflecting her commitment to social justice and empowerment. Her work extends to various sectors, championing women's rights in transport, agriculture, and rural development, inspiring others to work towards a more equitable future.

27 views6 comments


Nov 05, 2023

Most girls I grew up with felt they could not do sciences. and I am sure it is not their parents that discouraged them.


Nov 05, 2023

I remember our primary school maths teacher never picking girls to answer questions.


Oct 18, 2023

the underrepresentation of women in STEM continues in the workforce. Many women engineers opt not to apply for field-based jobs even further education that take them away from their familieis.

Nite Tanzarn
Nite Tanzarn
Oct 18, 2023
Replying to

Your comment sheds light on an issue that is very important. Indeed, the underrepresentation of women in STEM extends beyond educational settings into the workforce. The constraints and societal expectations that deter women from field-based roles or further education are hurdles that need addressing. It's not just about creating opportunities; it's about making those opportunities accessible and appealing to women without the penalty of sacrificing family life or personal growth.



#NITETANZARNIntellectNest #GirlsInSTEM #WomenInSTEM #STEMEducation #GenderEquality #GESI #WomensRights


nsabimana canisius
nsabimana canisius
Sep 01, 2023

Girls excell equally in science and technology as boys and in most cases do much better

Nite Tanzarn
Nite Tanzarn
Sep 01, 2023
Replying to

Dear Canisius,

Thank you for your comment on my post. I appreciate your input, and you are absolutely right—girls often perform as well as, or even better than, boys in science and technology subjects.

Your observation amplifies the irony of existing gender disparities in STEM fields. Given the academic performance, there is no logical reason why girls should be underrepresented. This underlines the fact that the barriers are not of capability but are instead systemic and cultural.

The question then becomes: Why are we not seeing this academic excellence translate into professional representation?



Author, Mama's Reflective Musings

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