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New research on girls’ transition to STEM in higher education

© UNESCO/Sirisak Chaiyasook

Despite the narrowing gender gap in mathematics and science performance in secondary education, girls may not be choosing related subjects in higher education, or as a career path. Indeed, in many countries in the Asia-Pacific, women working in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Sectors are often a minority. This lack of correlation with female students’ performance in mathematics and science indicates that there may be a number of influential factors at play, which are limiting their future prospects in these sectors.

Indeed, the latest results from international assessments such as PISA in 2012 and TIMMS  in 2011 suggest that girls are increasingly ‘catching up’ with boys, especially in science where the gender gap tends to be narrow. In mathematics however, this gap appears to vary from country to country. While generally boys continue to outperform girls albeit by a small margin, for instance in Australia, Indonesia and the Republic of Korea, girls are outperforming boys in mathematics in Kazakhstan, Malaysia and Thailand. The study of STEM subjects in higher education, and an eventual career in those sectors, however, remains largely underrepresented by women. In Malaysia for instance, despite higher performance among girls in mathematics and science in both PISA and TIMSS, studies indicate that women represent only 37.7% of researchers in the science  field.

This lack of correlation between girls’ learning achievement, further study and labour market outcomes signals the need for further exploration of the underlying factors that may be affecting this progression, and analysis of how education policies and programmes can help address this gap. As part of a three year joint research initiative between UNESCO Bangkok and the Korean Women’s Development Institute (KWDI) on gender and the quality of education, a multi-country research study will be undertaken to address this gap. This study will be the second in a series of three studies, and will be conducted throughout 2014. It follows from the first study Gender, Jobs and Education: Prospects and Realities in the Asia-Pacific published earlier this year.

Based on an initial desk review of existing research, it would seem that a number of factors may help to explain the lack of correlation. These form the basis of the 2014 UNESCO-KWDI  study’s framework. Firstly, the social and cultural context, comprising both social norms and attitudes towards girls’ and women in these fields, as well as psycho-social factors such as student attitudes, motivation and aspiration towards mathematics and science. Secondly, labour market factors may provide insight into proportions of female graduates entering STEM sectors and those already working in these fields. In addition, employability schemes, programmes and initiatives will be explored to assess how far they reflect gender-sensitivity. Finally the education context will be a key focus, looking at policies, as well as school factors such as teacher attitudes, school activities for enhancing learning in these subjects and career counselling.

This second study will focus on several countries in the Asia-Pacific Region, and in particular the following ten countries: Australia, Cambodia, Indonesia, Japan, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Nepal, Republic of Korea, Thailand and Viet Nam. This selection of countries aims to not only represent the different sub-regions and social and economic contexts in the region, but also to better understand how wider sociocultural, labour market and educational factors may be affecting girls’ transition to STEM fields of study in higher education. The research report, which will consist of a regional synthesis based on the findings across the ten selected countries, has just been launched and will be published by the end of 2014. Expressions of interest to participate in this research study in these ten countries can be sent to

For more information, please contact Ramya Vivekanandan [] at the Education Policy and Reform Unit

Written by Aliénor Salmon.