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Title: The gender gap in university studies in the STEM sector in the Spanish education system
Authors: Verdugo-Castro, S.
Keywords: Gender gap
gender stereotypes
higher education studies
role models
Issue Date: 24-Jun-2022
Publisher: Grupo GRIAL
Citation: Verdugo-Castro, S. (2022). The gender gap in university studies in the STEM sector in the Spanish education system. PhD thesis, PhD Programme Education in the Knowledge Society, University of Salamanca, Salamanca, Spain.
Abstract: There are advances, progress, and achievements in the struggle to achieve equality of rights and opportunities between men and women in the different life scenarios in which a person develops. However, real and effective equality has not been fully achieved. Nowadays, it is still necessary to implement positive discrimination measures, such as quotas, to make equal representation possible in some environments, such as the workplace. One of the professional sectors where the unemployment rate is lowest and a wide range of outlets are concentrated in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The STEM areas harbour multiple opportunities. However, historically and culturally, social constructs have traditionally feminised and masculinised the studies and thus the professions. The STEM education sector has high disparity figures between men and women. In addition, the STEM workplace is sometimes hostile and forged into barriers for other underrepresented groups, such as LGBT people or people from ethnic backgrounds. Because of this, it is necessary to study and address the reality of the systemic and structural problem of the gender gap in STEM. In this context, this doctoral thesis aims to study the gender gap in STEM in the Spanish higher education sector. The general objective of the thesis is to find out the opinion of the Spanish university population on all branches of knowledge about STEM studies concerning gender to detect stereotypes. On the other hand, the main hypothesis of the research is that the opinion that the Spanish university population has about tertiary studies in STEM areas about gender, that is, the ability to perform STEM tasks by men and women, is conditioned by personal factors, such as gender, academic factors, and family and contextual factors. The thesis is divided into two blocks to carry out the research and to answer the objective, the research questions, and the hypotheses that have been set out. The first block has the theoretical argumentation, and the second block gathers the empirical development from two non-experimental studies. A Systematic Literature Review and a systematic mapping of the gender gap in the STEM sector in the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) were conducted at the theoretical level. A Codebook on the intrinsic and extrinsic factors modulating the gender gap in the STEM education sector was designed based on the 26 publications selected after applying the PRISMA protocol. All this has allowed us to contextualise the empirical research based on two empirical studies. For this purpose, after reviewing instruments, a mixed questionnaire was designed for this doctoral thesis: Questionnaire with university students on STEM studies in Higher Education (QSTEMHE). This questionnaire aimed to determine what opinion university students have about STEM studies according to gender, i.e., the ability to perform STEM tasks according to gender. Two studies, both based on non-experimental ex-post-facto designs, were carried out for its application. The first study was a pilot carried out in 2020 with 115 university students from Spanish institutions. The first stage of empirical validation of the questionnaire was completed from this pilot, and preliminary results were obtained. After the pilot study and the first validation stage, which was carried out through correlation analysis, Reliability Analysis, and Exploratory Factor Analysis, a second study was carried out in 2021 with a larger sample. Simple random probability sampling was used to obtain a representative Spanish university student population sample. In the end, the sample consisted of 2101 people. After data collection, the second stage of empirical validation was completed, in which, along with the analysis techniques already indicated, Confirmatory Factor Analysis and Composite Reliability Analysis were also applied. Quantitative analyses of the data were applied after obtaining the final empirical dimensionality of the instrument and these were complemented with the interpretation of the answers obtained to the open-ended questions of the questionnaire. Finally, the results reveal that gender stereotypes about STEM degrees persist, considering them masculinised and male-dominated. In addition, the motivations for choosing studies (internal factors), the models and references at the time of deciding which degree to take (positive external influences), and the fact that someone judged or questioned the decision taken (negative external influences) are also modulating elements towards thinking free of bias and stereotypes. In terms of gender, the results show that men are more prone to gender stereotyping. However, in both the men's and women's groups, roles are still perpetuated about what is understood as a woman, a man, a person studying STEM, a non-STEM degree, and what "men's" and "women's" professions are. To conclude, it is essential to keep in mind that the gender gap in the STEM education sector is one more manifestation of the social and cultural segregation we live in. Human beings are socialised in a system marked by social constructs, including gender stereotypes. Therefore, it is essential to understand that the gender gap is not the responsibility of girls and women but is the consequence of a systemic problem. Patriarchal culture, gender socialisation, and roles can lead to discriminatory disparities. Thus, there is an urgent need to continue intervening in this phenomenon. This must be done with an open perspective that integrates all the agents involved: the education system, labour sector, public institutions, and citizens. By involving them, it will be possible to move away from segregationist gender ideologies and reduce the social representations that establish hierarchies of value between genders. Finally, also highlight the explanatory model of the gender gap in tertiary STEM studies based on a core of five dimensions and intrinsic and extrinsic modulating factors. The model was generated by the questionnaire designed and validated in the context of this doctoral thesis, Questionnaire with university students on STEM studies in Higher Education (QSTEMHE).
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