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Hong Kong group urges parents, teachers to work harder to close gender gap in STEM subjects

Call comes as study finds girls are generally not opting for such subjects due to unsupportive parents, education system

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 March, 2017, 4:00pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 March, 2017, 4:00pm

Parents, schools, businesses and the Hong Kong government must work harder to promote science and mathematics to girls to close the gender gap in education, a leading women’s campaign group has urged.

New research suggests gender stereotyping, the local education system and unsupportive parents continue to hinder girls’ chance of success in traditionally male-dominated job sectors.

The study commissioned by non-profit group the Women’s Foundation in Hong Kong (TWFHK), explores why girls are generally not opting for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects, just as the world prepares to celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8.

It has found that despite claims by the Education Bureau that both female and male students are given equal opportunities, girls continue to be dissuaded from studying STEM subjects by parents and teachers.

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The study’s participants – about 1,000 girls from 13 public schools – reported feeling that STEM subjects were “boring” and “dry”, with the exception of biology. This meant girls were consistently choosing to drop STEM subjects as they become optional at the Diploma of Secondary Education level, with only mathematics remaining compulsory.

The situation means that young women are greatly outnumbered by their male counterparts if they eventually pursue STEM subjects at university.

This also results in a gender imbalance in key industries such as finance and technology, which subsequently means that there are fewer female role models in those industries.

Su-Mei Thompson, chief executive officer of the Women’s Foundation, said there remained “a lot of stereotyping” in Hong Kong particularly in relation to academic subjects and career paths, but she believed the situation “can change”.

“A lot of parents of girls in Hong Kong are key [influences on] them regarding their subject choices and the things they should do,” she said. “Blue collar families are not always very aware of certain career pathways. The government and companies should be helping to make sure that parents are educated about these industries.

“We know that STEM skills are key to our young women playing a meaningful role in the development and definition of emerging fields that will drive the industries of tomorrow.”

Traditionally, as is the case across the world, girls in Hong Kong have overwhelmingly favoured the arts over STEM subjects.

The latest census report in 2016 found that young women made up 73.7 per cent of the students in arts and humanities programmes funded by the University Grants Committee at higher education institutions.

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They were also more considerably likely than young men to pursue courses in education, health and social sciences.

In 2011, sciences (38.8 per cent female students), and engineering and technology (30.5 per cent female students) were the least popular fields among women who had pursued post-secondary education, the most recent census showed.

However, there were reasons to be hopeful – women made up 59 per cent of students in business and management courses, as well as 56 per cent of students in dentistry courses.

The Women’s Foundation has called for the government to review its curriculum and teaching approaches, as research suggests girls thrive in a collaborative working environment as opposed to Hong Kong’s traditionally individual-focused one.

It held a conference, supported by multinational finance company Goldman Sachs, to discuss the report’s findings on February 10 in Central, as it launched its Girls Go Tech Programme.

The scheme aims to provide girls going to schools in some of Hong Kong’s poorest districts with coding and digital literacy foundational skills.

Nancy Ng, a 14-year-old Form Two student at Holy Trinity College, a Catholic girls’ school in Shek Kip Mei, said taking part in the programme had given her confidence to consider pursuing a career in information technology.

“I found it very meaningful,” she said. “People may have the impression that they are not good at these subjects, but I have started to enjoy learning them.”

Monica Fung, vice-principal of Holy Trinity College, said coding workshops and 3D printing lessons were helping to “enrich the children’s perspective”.

“Technology is changing so fast, so traditional careers will vanish,” she said. “We have to equip the students to face the challenges in the future.”

A spokesman for the Education Bureau said girls and boys had “equal opportunities” to study STEM subjects in its schools. He said the government had been working to promote STEM subjects with related organisations through programmes and seminars.

“We also stress that students’ choice of subjects should be based on their aptitudes and aspirations, and the gender issue should not affect their decision,” he said.