STEM education should be more inclusive and incorporate a gender perspective

Ongoing scientific development and in particular innovation in digital technologies is rapidly changing the way people learn, work, socialise, dream and set their goals and participate in all realms of public and private life. Nevertheless there are risks that specific groups of young people remain behind in the adoption (and co-creation) of new technologies and thus remain excluded from its benefits.

Young people with disabilities, in particular, are at risk of being excluded from the benefits of technological progress, while in reality technology could mean a lot to them. Thanks to scientific development digital technology has become more accessible, smaller, lighter, faster and more person centred, allowing the users of applications with disabilities to participate almost on equal foot with others in society. The ENTELIS network in its recently published White paper “Digital Inclusion” lists among the barriers that persons with disabilities experience in accessing technology the lack of information, education and training, as well as a low self esteem fed by the difficulties to cope continuously with inaccessible environments and stigma.

Among people with disabilities, women are among the most vulnerable. They often experience multiple barriers, both related to their disability as well as their being woman. These barriers are particularly evident when it comes to competence development related to technology, including access to formal education pathways and careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Data from the European Institute for Gender Equality demonstrate that even among the new generations of engineers women are underrepresented, although there are significant differences between countries (Ref. As far as we know there are no data available regarding the incidence of female students with disabilities on the total population of students in STEM, but the above mentioned trends seem to suggest that the number is quite low.

There is much social science research on identity formation which indicates that a student’s identity affects his/her interests and motivations. STEM identity is particularly influenced by the fact that scientists, and the same holds true for ICT experts,  are seen as typically male, white, and middle class so there is an identity conflict for those students whose self-identity does not readily fit with the categories of male, white, or middle class. Ref. Macdonald, A. (2014). An additional factor leading to non-identification might be observed in the case of disabled young people some of whom are definitely interested in technology but who often lack the stimulation of their environment, including parents, teachers, peers. As a matter of fact identity development, including dreams about the future, starts early and is strongly determined by what happens outside formal education. Many institutions in formal education have difficulties in coping with rapid changes in society and with a more personalised approach, leaving behind those students that do not respond to the standard requirements.

All this is not new but nevertheless many institutions in formal and informal education ignore the gaps or, in case they decide to act, will focus their attention to increasing the participation of girls and women in STEM education and employment. The disability factor is almost never taken into account. In other words there is a clear need to advance informal education in STEM for young people with disabilities both using inclusive and specific methodologies.