Nazarbayev University
Graduate School of Education

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Factors affecting the decision of female students to enroll in undergraduate science technology engineering and mathematics majors in Kazakhstan

Ainur Almukhambetova, the Doctor of Philosophy in Education, Postdoctoral Scholar of the Graduate School of Education together with Aliya Kuzhabekova, Associate professor, have published an article Factors affecting the decision of female students to enroll in undergraduate science technology engineering and mathematics majors in Kazakhstan in the "International Journal of Science Education". Ainur Almukhambetova tells about the research, the results of which are presented here, in an interview with our website.

 

Could you please outline the key aim of the research? 

The aim of this research project is to analyze the experiences of female higher education students currently enrolled in STEM disciplines in universities in Kazakhstan.

Why do you think this issue is important? 

According to the statistics, the formal labor market in Kazakhstan is heavily gendered, with women representing over 70 % of all employers in traditionally “female” spheres, such as health care and education.  The statistics shows that men predominate in STEM sectors where the average salary is twice higher than in education and healthcare sectors. Kazakhstani female students also display lower enrolment rates in STEM disciplines at universities and are more likely to “leak” from the STEM educational pipeline as they advance in their education. 

This issue is important as the underrepresentation of women in STEM presents a serious problem for economic competitiveness of the country. Women constitute half of the population, and you can imagine the enormous potential and talent that women can bring to STEM fields. The continuing underrepresentation of women in STEM has long-term implications on women’s labor market outcomes and increases the inferior economic status of women in Kazakhstan.

What are the main obstacles for women in Kazakhstan when it comes to enrolling into STEM majors?

We found out that the main obstacle for young women face are the conflicting societal expectations about gender roles in the family life and gender norms in education and career. According to social expectations, the girls in Kazakhstan need to be well-educated and always display high academic performance. However, when it comes to choosing a profession, they are not expected to choose career in STEM as there is a strong perception that women cannot perform well in traditionally male-dominated areas and will not be able to combine ‘a masculine profession’ and family responsibilities in future. In our study, we identified that these conflicting societal expectations confuse the young women wishing to pursue their education in STEM. On the one hand, they feel capable to achieve high. On the other hand, they receive the messages from the society and surrounding people that technical fields are only for men and start to question their abilities and future.

When it comes to female students and STEM, what are the main differences between our region and the Western world?

While in many countries, one of the main reasons for low enrolment of women in STEM majors is the lower achievement of girls in STEM fields at high-school level, this reason does not apply to Kazakhstan. In such well-known international assessments as PISA and TIMSS, Kazakhstani girls consistently display equal scores with boys in mathematics and even outscore the boys in science.  However, as I said before, women still remain underrepresented in STEM majors at universities and are more likely to choose careers outside STEM and leave STEM education as they advance in their education. 

 Such unusual disparity between the level of attainment of high-school girls in STEM subjects, the availability of government scholarships and the actual enrollment of girls in undergraduate STEM majors make Kazakhstan an interesting case for exploration of issues that women face while pursuing their education in STEM. It seems that the main barrier for women’s advancement in STEM in our region are the existing social and cultural stereotypes about women’ education and career in STEM.

What factors influence girls’ engagement with STEM at earlier age?

Actually, a variety of factors shape the experiences and decisions of a girl wishing to pursue education and career in STEM fields. One such factor is the school environment. The girls attending the schools with a higher quality of teaching and effective learning environment usually develop more interest to STEM subjects and more confidence in their abilities from earlier age. The availability of resources at schools to stimulate girls’ interest in science, the access to informal STEM activities and support of STEM teachers have a positive impact on girls’ decisions to pursue education and career in STEM. Another factor is the influence of family. In our study we identified that the girls who were supported by their families, felt more confidence in their STEM abilities and were more engaged with STEM.

Which methods did you use for your research?

We conducted a qualitative interview-based study to understand better the experiences of girls pursuing education in STEM disciplines in the universities in Kazakhstan. Overall, we interviewed 29 undergraduate female students and 27 graduate students enrolled in various STEM majors in 10 universities in the North, South, East, West and Central Kazakhstan. This paper discusses the factors affecting the decision of female students to enroll in STEM majors.

What are key outcomes of your research and recommendations for increasing female engagement with STEM?

The key finding of the study is that the contextual and cultural factors have a significant influence on girls’ self-efficacy beliefs in the process of career choice. Even if we have seemingly high levels of gender parity in official statistics, traditional beliefs and genders norms continue to influence the girls’ decisions to pursue education in STEM. In such critical period as entrance to university, the girls in Kazakhstan receive the messages from the society and surrounding people that technical fields are the men’s realm and start to doubt that they will be able to work in highly demanding STEM field in future.

There are certain things that schools can do to address the issue of underrepresentation of women in STEM fields. Our study suggests a need for institutional policies at secondary school levels necessary to support young girls in the process of choosing the major. The schools need to provide more career counselling and mentoring opportunities for the girls wishing to pursue education and career in STEM.  The schools also need to ensure that the teachers are trained in using gender-responsive advising and instructional strategies. The parents and family members should also encourage and support girls aspiring to pursue careers in STEM. More attention should be paid to the promotion of images of successful women working in STEM, as this helps to overcome the stereotypes associated with occupations in STEM

Read more of the author's articles here:

On Being Gifted at University: Academic, Social, Emotional, and Institutional Adjustment in Kazakhstan, Gifted Child Quarterly, 2020

Gifted Students' Adjustment and Underachievement in University: An Exploration From the Self-Determination Theory Perspective, Journal of Advanced Academics, 2020