Female science and mathematics teachers: Better than they think?

By Dirk Hastedt (International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement), Justine Sass (UNESCO) and Matthias Eck (UNESCO)

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More urgently than ever before, more girls and women are needed in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). In over two-thirds of education systems, less than 25% of students in engineering, manufacturing, construction, or information and communication technologies (ICT) are women. Yet STEM careers are growing in demand and needed to solve the current challenges facing the world, including the current COVID-19 crisis, climate change and food and water security.

Considering this urgency, UNESCO and the International Association of the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) investigated how teacher self-efficacy – or belief in your own capacity to master a task or accomplish a goal – and gender are related in mathematics and science teaching in a special issue of the IEA Compass: Briefs in Education Series.

Using data from IEA’s Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) 2015, the analysis looked at 43 education systems at Grade 8 and 52 education systems at Grade 4. The results of this new analysis show that there is no direct relationship between the gender of the teacher and students’ performance in science and mathematics. Grade 4 and 8 students taught by female teachers perform just as well in science and mathematics as their peers taught by male teachers.

However, the analysis finds that female science and mathematics teachers have less self-efficacy overall than their male counterparts. This is particularly the case for science. Grade 4 female science teachers reported lower levels of self-efficacy than their male counterparts in 16 education systems. This was also the case at Grade 8, where female science teachers reported lower levels of self-efficacy in 13 education systems.

Female teachers have long been associated with improved educational experiences and enhanced learning outcomes for girls in some contexts. By acting as positive role models for girls, female teachers are found to effectively dispel myths about innate abilities among boys, and can improve girls’ perceptions, interest, and self-efficacy in STEM. But the analysis of grade 8 data for science suggests that lower self-efficacy of female science and mathematics teachers may be affecting girls’ own self-efficacy in these subjects, and subsequently their pursuit of STEM careers. This could unlock many answers to finding better gender balance in STEM studies and careers.

Currently, significantly fewer girls than boys expect to work in science and engineering professions. These expectations are not related to performance: fewer girls who are top performers in science or mathematics expect to work in science and engineering, compared to boys who are top performers. If these expectations are linked to self-esteem, as our model suggests, this is something that urgently requires further research to unpack and resolve.

“As a teacher, I see girls and boys demonstrating different attitudes in mathematics and chemistry subjects, with girls feeling less confident than boys in these subjects”, says Tanja Neuschmidt, a mathematics and chemistry teacher at the Heinrich-Hertz-Schule in Hamburg, Germany. “I did not expect that this could be linked to teachers’ self-esteem.” Tanja is keen to discuss the findings of this brief with her peers to encourage more girls to build self-confidence and to value their success in STEM fields as they explore their future careers.

A focus on self-efficacy has other potential benefits worth exploring further. The UNESCO-IEA analysis also revealed a positive relationship between self-efficacy of science and mathematics teachers and job satisfaction, and this relation was found to be particularly strong for female science and mathematics teachers.

These findings have several implications. Leadership and training of female science and mathematics teachers must include the objective of raising awareness of their strengths and building their self-esteem. Similarly professional training programs tailored to enhance female teachers’ self‐efficacy beliefs need to address issues related to job satisfaction and overall teacher well-being, such as working conditions and school climate.


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