Hedy Lamarr, Katherine Johnson, Marie Curie were all trailblazers who made invaluable contributions to STEM. They were also women. Yet today, 68 years after Katherine Johnson started work at NASA, there is still a significant gender gap in STEM. Studies suggest that girls are less likely to choose STEM subjects and less likely to pursue STEM careers. This is concerning, as STEM represents the fastest-growing job sector, with some of the highest-paying jobs around. So why don’t girls choose STEM subjects? In this article, we review the statistics around education and employment, and investigate why more girls don’t choose STEM careers.
What does STEM mean?
STEM is an acronym that stands for four subjects – science, technology, engineering, and maths. STEM careers – such as medicine, computer science and data analysis – use knowledge from those subjects in their everyday work.
How big is the STEM gender gap?
Studies have shown that although most graduates in most countries are women, fewer women than men complete STEM university degrees. For example, data from the USA showed that in Computer science, women made up just 18 percent of the bachelor’s degrees, 30 percent of master’s degrees, and 20 percent of the doctorate degrees. A similar gender gap was found in Physical science, where only 19 percent of bachelor’s degrees, 22 percent of master’s degrees went to females.
It’s important to note that the gender gap isn’t universal across all STEM subjects. Indeed, the US data also suggested that for Psychology, Biological science and social sciences, women make up 54 percent of the bachelor’s degrees and 57 percent of the doctorate degrees. Yet while these figures are positive, the balance doesn’t carry through to other STEM subjects. What’s more concerning is that the small percentage of female graduates translates to even smaller percentages of women in the post-graduation STEM workforce.
Why is this gender gap a problem?
Experts predict that predicts that technology fields will experience the highest growth in job numbers between now and 2030, and these new jobs will represent some of the most lucrative career pathways available. Yet only a fraction of girls and women are likely to pursue degrees that enable them to fulfil these roles. In 2019, only 15% of science and engineering in the USA jobs were held by women. These figures suggest a real danger that the STEM gender gap will drive the gender pay gap even wider, leaving women at a disadvantage in the modern, technological workforce.
Are girls worse at STEM subjects?
In a word, no.
One key European study reviewed performance in science in schools across 67 countries. The study that in 48 of these countries, girls either outperformed boys, or there were no statistically significant differences. Similar results were found in the USA, where girls aged 9-14 consistently perform on par with boys in maths and science, and even choose to study science and maths at equal rates as they enter high school, with the gender gap in subject selection not emerging until girls get closer to university age.
So why don’t girls choose STEM subjects?
Girls are stronger in other subjects
One answer may be that girls are simply stronger in other subjects. The European data suggests that girls performed more strongly in reading than in any other subject, and are more likely to choose subjects based on reading. In contrast, boys score higher in science and maths compared to their all-subjects average. This may explain why boys are more likely than girls to choose careers in STEM fields.
There’s a lack of female role models in STEM
There’s no denying that STEM fields have been historically dominated by men. Combine that with the low numbers of women currently entering the STEM arena post-graduation, and there’s a serious lack of female role models in STEM. This in turn puts younger girls off the idea of studying or working in STEM. Eventually, the problem becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.
Microsoft suggests tackling this issue with a combination of mentorship and role modelling to help girls develop confidence in STEM and STEM careers. They suggest that parents play a vital role in mentorship. That’s because girls are twice as likely to stay in STEM if they are encouraged by their parents. They also recommend creating role models by celebrating the stories of women who are working in STEM today. After all, it’s far easier to relate to a living, breathing person who’s already doing your dream job.
Girls find the STEM curriculum unengaging and unrelatable.
Many young people have simply don’t know what STEM careers look like in the real world. Girls in particular struggle to see how STEM subjects relate to their life and their interests. Ask any young person to name a STEM career, and they usually list “traditional” STEM jobs like accountancy and banking. Yet modern STEM careers are found in a wide variety of fields – think digital marketing, digital animation, and meteorology. Helping young women to understand the full range of STEM careers on offer is a priority for schools and parents. Equally, Microsoft suggest that the STEM curriculum needs an overhaul, with teachers offering engaging activities including 3D modelling, hands-on projects, and reading/writing-based assessments to help girls showcase their knowledge and retain their interest in STEM over the long term.
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