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Female students account for just 5% of Science Olympiad takers

Females accounted for a paltry 5.3 percent of high schoolers who competed in the International Science Olympiads as members of Japan’s national team over the past decade, a survey shows.

The findings by the Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST) found that just 16 of the 302 students who demonstrated their ability in mathematics, physics and other disciplines were female.

The JST, which works to promote the Olympiads, is considering a range of steps to raise the figure.

Competitions in the International Science Olympiads are organized by academic category. They include mathematics, chemistry, biology, physics, geography, informatics and earth science.

With the July 6 start of the International Mathematical Olympiad in Oslo, a succession of events are scheduled to be held until the last one for earth science kicks off Aug. 25 through an online stream. This year, a total of 31 students are representing Japan in the seven categories.

According to a tally by the JST, a total of 302 Japanese students took part in the International Science Olympiads from fiscal 2013 through fiscal 2022. Of that figure, 16 were female.

While three female students took part in fiscal 2013, 2014 and 2018, none were represented in fiscal 2015. In the latest event, only one female contestant for earth science is part of the national team.

By subject, geography and biology constituted the highest female ratio with five female students in total. The ratios for the two divisions were 13.9 percent and 12.5 percent, respectively.

Female students accounted for three, or 8.3 percent, in earth science, two, or 5.0 percent, in chemistry and one, or 1.7 percent, in mathematics. No female students were among the Japanese competitors in physics and informatics.

The JST said more males than females traditionally take part in the International Science Olympiads as an overall trend of all the participating countries, although detailed statistics on the female percentages are not available for the other national teams.

Explaining the paucity of Japanese female representation, the JST noted that fewer female students opt to take science courses at their schools with the result that they are dramatically outnumbered in the domestic qualifying rounds.

The disparity is especially noticeable in the qualifiers for mathematics, physics and informatics. Female students in these categories comprised less than 20 percent of all the participants in the qualifying rounds in the last fiscal year.

The female ratio was also around 30 percent in chemistry. However, it was more than 50 percent in biology. This, the JST suggests, underlines prevailing gender ratio differences in academic disciplines.

As the JST serves as the secretariat of Japan’s Science Olympiad committee, a representative acknowledged that the organization first needs to take steps to “urge more female students to compete in the qualifiers.”

To achieve that goal, the JST is implementing a number of approaches, such as asking the organizers of domestic qualifying events to set goals on female percentages. The organizers also hold lectures given by female researchers and offer guidance at girls’ schools to reach out to students.

Ginko Kawano, a professor of educational sociology at Yamagata University, attributed the large gender gap among top-performing students to the educational environment in which female students are given little incentive to focus on the sciences.

“Individual teachers should pay close attention so they don’t use words or act unintentionally in ways that can reinforce the stereotype that males perform better at learning sciences,” said Kawano.

She also said that when extremely capable female scientists give lectures about their achievements, young female students could conclude it would be impossible for them to reach such heights and give up seeking a career in sciences.

According to the JST’s data, qualifier participant numbers differ drastically by region.

Many students from prestigious high schools in large urban zones are represented in qualification rounds because they typically study hard for college entrance exams, whereas participation in specific subjects is nonexistent in some prefectures.

An urgent challenge now is how to raise the profile of the competitions in rural regions in particular. For that reason, the JST said it is asking educational boards to call for more active participation among those who attend public high schools.

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