Aspirations of NSW high school girls for careers that require high level mathematics: A fine-grained analysis with alarming results

Year: 2017

Author: Jaremus,Felicia, Gore, Jennifer, Lloyd, Adam, Fray, Leanne, Prieto, Elena

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

The participation of women in non-traditional areas of study has long been an identified equity target in Australian higher education. Despite this policy impetus, girls remain underrepresented in intermediate and advanced mathematics in senior secondary school. While school and university-based initiatives designed to encourage girls' interest in mathematics have been implemented over an extended period, little is known about the degree to which these have translated into heightened interest among girls in Years 7 to 12. Our study was uniquely positioned to investigate this situation, with data from the Aspirations Longitudinal Study (Gore et al., 2015) that included more than 5,500 surveys completed by secondary students from NSW government schools. We drew on these data to explore aspirations for careers that require a university degree that has assumed knowledge of (at least) senior secondary intermediate level mathematics. Our research revealed that girls' lack of participation in high level mathematics is underscored by a lack of interest in careers that require high level mathematics. Although 22.0% of girls, compared with 23.7% of boys, said that they aspired to one or more of these careers, aspirations were highly gendered and broadly aligned with NSW tertiary enrolment patterns in these fields (DET, 2016). Girls' aspirations were concentrated in biological, life and animal sciences - especially veterinary science, which accounted for 48% of all girls' aspirations for careers requiring high level mathematics, whilst boys' aspirations ranged across a broader number of STEM-related fields including information technology and engineering, which were named ten times more often by boys than girls. A logistic regression analysis of all secondary girls' aspirations revealed that the girls who were significantly more likely to name one of these careers were younger, had higher cultural capital and/or had higher prior mathematics achievement than girls who did not name a career requiring high level mathematics. While interest in occupational fields and enrolment patterns in higher education are well-documented, our fine-grained analysis of school student interest in these fields suggests that: such patterns show no signs of abating; and, the trends might be even more alarming than commonly understood given such limited interest shown by girls in most fields that require high level mathematics, particularly in fields which are currently male dominated. Unless certain fields of study and professions change to better account for girls' interests and to address their concerns about masculine occupational cultures, little change can be anticipated over the next decade.