Growing up in the 60s before equal opportunity was the social catch cry for successful females, I was fortunate to have an enlightened father who encouraged me to access all educational opportunities offered in those days. Teaching me to read pre-school from the big, bold headlines of newspapers and basic arithmetic by counting pennies, he later suggested studying sciences and maths in senior high school to enhance my intellectual acumen.

Attaining and accessing equal opportunity is inspired both at home and across a social milieu that values females as equally worthy to boys. Gender stereotypes still separate the sexes as intrinsically intellectually different, with mothers and fathers mostly living in clearly proscribed roles, oft then internalised, albeit unconsciously, by their children, with daughters consequently inhibited from accessing equal opportunity.

This seems affirmed by Mac.Robertson Girls’ High School principal, Toni Meath, who recently said girls needed to be encouraged to apply for places in select-entry high schools to access equal opportunity: “We want girls to have an opportunity to have feminist role models, which we know is important for their growth.” Six hundred and ninety-two more boys than girls were accepted into these schools over five years from 2010, but why such a disparity with girls not applying? Is the explanation a lack of available space for them at these schools as Dr Meath also asserted? The gender imbalance suggests a contradictory reality for girls; on the one hand they are apparently not applying for entry but at the same time there is no space to accommodate them. What underlies this contradiction? Do girls not want to apply or access equal opportunity or are governments behaving badly by not allocating places for them?

At the same time, the number of females enrolling in STEM studies (Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths) at schools and at tertiary level is much less than males with suggestions girls are discouraged to study these subjects. A recent Galaxy Research national survey of 1000 Australians aged 20-35 years, commissioned by Tabcorp, found girls were dissuaded from pursuing a career in these areas not just by parents, but by a relative, a school careers counsellor/teacher and a friend. Sixty-five per cent of respondents said parents influenced their choice about STEM studies.

According to Tabcorp’s chief information officer, Kim Wenn: “The concerning thing is that women think they’re not smart enough.” Is this indeed true or is it that females are just not interested in STEM? Furthermore, why should they be? One implication of Wenn’s belief is that girls should study STEM simply because boys are to achieve a level playing field. Is this about genuine equal opportunity or just emulating males for the sake of it? It seems no one has actually asked females about their attitudes towards their intellectual capabilities to obtain a more accurate analysis of why they are not studying STEM.

Today, equal opportunities abound at school and in the workforce but why so many females seem reluctant to access these presents a conundrum. In 2015, a 16-year-old female student at non select entry Fitzroy High School, undertaking a newly introduced feminist studies elective, also stated that many bright, high achieving girls at her school did not believe they were “smart enough” to aspire for powerful, leadership positions. Did she assume this or did she ask these girls? If what Kim Wenn and she believe accurately reflects girls’ inferior and negative self-beliefs compared to boys, we need to clarify and address why girls entertain these attitudes. Furthermore, a 2016 Melbourne University survey of young female doctors about their specialist choices concluded these doctors chose obstetrics over male-dominated surgery because they lacked ‘confidence’ to undertake surgical studies. What psychology is extant in young females’ psyches?

Perhaps they receive confusing messages about equal opportunities, absorbing family values at home and at school advising more traditional studies and lifestyle while simultaneously hearing feminist educationalists imploring them to aspire for more empowering achievements, supposedly similarly to boys. How can young females reconcile these conflicting ideologies? Not feeling ‘smart enough’ to compete with boys may be valid, but at the same time it may be that being ambitious and endowed with a strong sense of being smart could engender bitchy nastiness from other female friends and/or family members. Females can be as inimical to and threatened by higher achievers of their own gender as it’s claimed some males are. Indeed, in 2014 TV media celebrity, Lisa Wilkinson, claimed in her Andrew Ollie Memorial Lecture that women could be ‘unkind’ to women because of greater competitiveness between women.

Social conditioning is obviously complex and clarifying exactly how this underpins attitudes towards self and career is critical for understanding why females make the choices they do. Ensuring females can make choices they want based on their talents, skills and interests, without implicit expectations to just follow boys, invites acknowledging individual differences, gender irrelevant. It starts before entering the school gate.

Accessing equal opportunity does not engender equal outcomes, not just for females but for males too. To access equal opportunity demands it be real and practicable, not just a spurious symbol of the same, second-class subservience. As a society we need to explore exactly why females are not pursuing equal opportunities without assumptions and bias and at the same time, appreciate it is not about chasing a male culture.