skip to main content
Intervention needed to transition women into and out of STEM degrees
Shutterstock/NDAB Creativity

Intervention needed to transition women into and out of STEM degrees

Research 4 minute read

New research shows women commonly outperform their peers in STEM subjects at university, yet are less likely to transition into STEM careers.

The research, conducted by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) and funded by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), offers new insights into STEM pathways for young people in equity groups as they progress from secondary school, through post-school education and into the workforce.

ACER researchers analysed data from the Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth (LSAY) and from the Programme of International Student Assessment (PISA) tracking a cohort of young people from age 15 to 25. The equity groups examined were people from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds, non-metropolitan areas, first in family to enrol at university and women in non-traditional areas.

While most equity groups had lower relative transition rates into higher education, the proportion who enrol in a STEM field was similar to the national average, with approximately one in four university commencers enrolling in a STEM field.

Women were found to be less likely to enrol in STEM courses than other students, with less than one in eight women who began university within this cohort enrolling in a STEM field.

For those women that did commence a STEM pathway, completion rates were very high compared to national averages and other equity groups. Yet graduate outcomes for women were notably adverse.

Fewer than one in three STEM university commencers go into a STEM occupation by the age of 25, but for women and students from low SES backgrounds the transition rate is even lower, at one in four.

Further analyses to explore the factors that contribute to enrolment in STEM courses revealed Australian students who saw the usefulness of mathematics skills for further study and work were more likely to pursue a STEM pathway, even after controlling for mathematics achievement.

Instrumental motivation and self-concept in mathematics, as measured through PISA at age 15, were also significant predictors of subsequent higher education in STEM fields for women, students from low SES backgrounds and first in family university students.

The findings from this study have potential implications for policy and practice in relation to three important areas of the lifecycle so as to improve outcomes for students from under-represented groups.

  • In the early and middle years of schooling, build mathematics programs and encourage pedagogical approaches that focus on demonstrating the practical importance of mathematics, with the aim of increasing instrumental motivation in mathematics
  • In the senior years of schooling, demonstrate the benefits of mathematics competency across a broad spectrum of employment and practical problem solving issues
  • In the later years of university, provide opportunities for work placements, internships and/or Work Integrated Learning (WIL) in STEM fields.

STEM skills are promoted by the Australian government as pivotal for Australia’s economic prosperity. Whether particular equity groups are able to participate in STEM has implications for the future labour market outcomes of these groups.

The study results have shown that within the STEM ‘pipeline’, the transition from school into university and the transition from university into the STEM workforce are two critical areas where there are ‘leaks’, particularly for women and people from Low SES backgrounds.

The strong academic performance of women in STEM degrees could therefore be better reflected in career outcomes by addressing access and post-graduation barriers. In particular, given the influence on decision-making in relation to further STEM study, interventions targeted at fostering self-concept and instrumental motivation are crucial, even before students turn 15 years of age.

Find out more:
STEM Pathways: The impact of equity, motivation and prior achievement, by Julie McMillan, Sheldon Rothman, Sarah Buckley and Daniel Edwards (ACER), was conducted under the NCSEHE Research Grants Program, funded by the Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment.

Subscribe to the Discover newsletter

Privacy policy