The STEM industry is thriving but it’s still affected by a gender gap, with maths-related areas suffering the most.
A report from last year showed that maths was the main culprit for a lack of women in STEM subjects in America.
The study in question showed that women are 1.5 times more likely to leave their STEM studies after their first college course in calculus.
Due to the differing collegiate systems in Ireland and America, maths is not necessarily the main problem with the gender gap in STEM subjects here. However, maths and maths-related subjects are definitely still suffering from a skills shortage in Ireland.
While there was a 3pc increase in students taking physics for the Leaving Certificate in 2016, the Institute of Physics in Ireland showed that almost a quarter of schools are still not offering physics at this exam level.
Furthermore, there is still a lower uptake on higher-level maths in the Leaving Cert compared to other core subjects.
The maths problem
“I think a lot of it here is social,” said Dr Eabhnat Ní Fhloinn, director of Maths Learning Centre at Dublin City University. “It’s quite acceptable to say ‘I’m bad at maths’ in any and every level of society in a way that it wouldn’t be okay to say ‘I can’t read and write’ or things like that.”
According to Ní Fhloinn, maths is too easily brushed off as something that you’re either good at or you’re not – and if you’re not, you can just forget about it.
“Some children are told from the start if they struggle at all at maths, their parents might say,‘Don’t worry about it, I was never any good at maths’,” she said. “There’s almost the idea that you’re either good at it or you’re not, as opposed to the fact that all of us, even those of us working with maths in university, struggle with some aspects of it.”
Our closest neighbour also treats maths differently. The UK, while quite similar to Ireland’s education system, doesn’t have maths as a mandatory subject for A-levels.
On the one hand, this means maths is given an extra level of importance in Ireland, as a core subject right up until the Leaving Cert.
However, if you were to compare the A-level maths students in the UK to the Leaving Cert maths students in Ireland, the UK grades might be stronger because those who have taken maths have taken it by choice, and are therefore a more select group compared to the masses in Ireland.
Luckily, the way we approach maths is changing for the better and Ní Fhloinn said the curriculum is being looked at from an understanding point of view.
“Until you understand something in maths, it’s always hard, and as soon as you understand it, it becomes easy,” she said. “There’s also been a big change in what we need in terms of maths in the last 20 or 30 years. We need to understand stuff a lot more now.”
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