Australia’s 2019–20 Youth in STEM survey by YouthInsight found that parents and teachers were the greatest influencer groups of young people’s education and career decisions. The 2020-21 STEM Influencers survey explored parents’ perceptions and attitudes to STEM.
Attitudes and engagement with STEM
Compare STEM interest and perceptions among parents across demographic groups, including how often they talk with their kids about STEM.
The survey found a strong correlation between parents’ own employment and education circumstances, and their views on STEM and their children’s study and careers.
A significantly larger proportion of fathers reported having higher education qualifications compared to mothers (68% of fathers, 54% of mothers). This gap was even greater when focusing on STEM. Fathers were more than twice as likely to have a STEM qualification as mothers (47% of fathers, 20% of mothers).
The majority of parents agreed that a STEM-skilled workforce is important for the Australian economy (92%). They also agreed that mathematics (89%) and technology skills (89%) are important for future employment.
A higher proportion of fathers than mothers perceived STEM subjects are important to get a good job. Mathematics was the only skill set with no significant difference between mothers’ and fathers’ perceptions of importance (90% for fathers, 87% for mothers). Parents of boys (eldest child) were more likely than parents of girls to believe that engineering skills are important. Parents in metropolitan areas were more likely to view science and technology as important (science 83%, technology 90%), compared to parents in regional or remote areas (science 76%, technology 86%). Parents with a culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) background also had higher perceptions of the importance of science, engineering and mathematics compared to parents without a CALD background.
Seventy-eight per cent of parents said they had a general interest in STEM, with technology (79%) and science (76%) the most popular subjects. Interest levels were higher among fathers compared to mothers across all STEM subjects. However, a third of all parents had low or no interest in mathematics (33%) and engineering (34%). Parents of boys showed higher levels of interest in engineering (69%, compared to 63% of parents of girls) and mathematics (70%, compared to 63% of parents of girls).
General interest in STEM was also higher amongst parents from:
- metropolitan locations (80%), compared to parents from regional and remote locations (73%)
- higher socio-economic areas (80%), compared to parents from lower socio-economic areas (74%)
- CALD backgrounds (88%), compared to parents without a CALD background (75%)
Almost half of all parents (45%) reported having at least weekly discussions with their children about STEM topics. However 15% reported they did not discuss STEM with their children. Weekly conversations were more common among fathers (51%) than mothers (38%). They were also more common among parents of boys (47%), compared to parents of girls (42%). Families held STEM conversations more frequently when at least one parent worked in a STEM-related occupation (59%), compared to those in non-STEM careers (43%).
Three quarters (76%) of parents reported having medium to high confidence in their ability to support their children with STEM. A significantly higher proportion of fathers (85%) reported confidence in supporting their children with STEM school work compared to mothers (67%).
Parents felt a similar level of confidence with technology (73% medium/high confidence), mathematics (72%) and science (71%). Parents reported the least confidence in engineering (61% medium/high confidence), with 2 out of 5 (39%) acknowledging they had low or no confidence in this area.
Confidence in ‘STEM in general’ was higher amongst parents from:
- metropolitan locations (79%), compared to parents from regional and remote locations (68%)
- higher socio-economic areas (78%), compared to parents from lower socio-economic areas (72%)
- CALD backgrounds (83%), compared to parents without a CALD background (74%)
Gender perceptions about STEM subjects and careers
Compare gender perceptions among parents across demographic groups. Explore their views on how engaged girls and boys are in STEM subjects, and how suited they are to STEM careers.
STEM gender perceptions by subject
The survey asked questions on whether it’s easier to engage girls or boys in STEM. Responses showed conflicting perceptions:
- Around half of all parents (52%) agreed it’s easier to engage boys in STEM compared to girls. Parents of boys were more likely to agree with this (56%) than parents of girls (47%).
- 40% of all parents agreed it’s easier to engage girls in STEM compared to boys. Parents of boys were indicatively more likely to agree with this (42%) than parents of girls (37%).
When considering engagement with STEM compared to other school subjects, the majority of parents (60%) agreed that it is easier to engage boys with STEM subjects compared to other subject areas. Only 44% of parents felt the same for girls.
STEM gender perceptions by career
The survey asked questions on whether boys or girls have a better chance to succeed in STEM. Responses showed conflicting perceptions:
- Fathers were just as likely to agree that boys have a better chance to succeed in STEM (52%), as they were to say that girls have a better chance (48%).
- A higher proportion of mothers agreed that boys have a better chance of success in STEM (39%), compared to girls (29%).
- Parents of boys were more likely to agree that boys have a better chance to succeed in a STEM career (49%) than parents of girls (41%). They were also more likely to agree that boys are better suited to STEM careers than girls (43%) compared with parents of girls (35%).
Looking at STEM gender perceptions by demography, several themes emerged from the data above.
Some cohorts of parents were more likely to believe in girls’ or boys’ capacity for STEM engagement, suitability and potential career success.
- Parents from CALD and higher SES backgrounds, and those from metropolitan locations, were more likely to agree to statements stating boys’ greater capacity.
- Fathers and Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander parents agreed more with statements stating girls’ greater capacity.
- Mothers, parents of boys and those without STEM qualifications or STEM jobs disagreed more on statements about girls’ capacity. The opposite was true for parents of girls and parents from regional areas.
Despite this, more than half of all parents did not believe gender plays any role in determining success in a STEM career:
- 55% disagreed that boys have a better chance at succeeding in STEM compared to girls
- 61% disagreed with the same statement regarding girls
- 61% disagreed with the statement that boys are better suited to STEM careers than girls.
The data showed a correlation between parents’ perceptions of the suitability of different jobs to different genders, and the perceived importance of STEM skills to those jobs.
Parents’ job perceptions included:
- Computing or information technology jobs were better suited to men, and were the jobs where STEM skills were the most essential.
- Pharmacy and teaching were the only jobs better suited to women, and where STEM skills were essential.
- Nursing was markedly associated with women, with STEM skills moderately essential.
These results were consistent with the STEM Influencers - Teacher and Career Advisers survey.
As a cohort, non-CALD parents had more gendered views of some jobs and STEM skills than other parent cohorts. They did not perceive that any jobs where STEM skills were essential were more suited to girls.
About the data
The 2020-21 STEM Influencer - Parents survey was a survey of almost 1500 parents. The survey asked questions designed to understand how parents contribute to young people’s perceptions and attitudes to STEM. Respondents came from all states and territories across Australia.
To ensure survey results represented the population, weighting corrected for under or over representation of sub-groups, by gender, age, location, country of birth and socio-economic status.
Our department commissioned YouthInsight to carry out this survey to expand on their 2019–20 Youth in STEM survey. In 2020-21, they also surveyed teachers and career advisers to complement the parent survey. They will conduct the Youth in STEM survey again in 2021-22.
Read about our methodology