Ability or Confidence: Why girls aren’t studying STEM

We are often told that science, technology, engineering and mathematics (or STEM) subjects are of importance to the future. However, while many girls successfully study these subjects when they are young, they often choose not to pursue when them they reach the later years of high school. In 2013, only 31 percent of girls completed STEM subjects for the NSW Higher School Certificate, while for boys it was 45 percent. Girls dropping out of STEM education while in high school leads to a lower representation in these fields within tertiary education. In Australia, men made up 81 percent of those with higher level STEM qualifications in 2010-11. This is in contrast to non-STEM related fields where women made up 60 percent of higher level qualification holders.  This lack of participation is mirrored by the STEM workforce, with women accounting for just 27 percent of the STEM graduate workforce.

A 2015 OECD report found girls’ lack of engagement in STEM to be a widespread issue. Their study found that ‘gender disparities in performance do not stem from innate differences in aptitude, but rather from students’ attitudes towards learning and their behaviour in school… and from the confidence they have – or do not have – in their own abilities as students’.

An Australian study out of the University of Melbourne also discovered that it was ‘untrue the idea that women don’t choose STEM subjects…in high school because they are not as good at numeracy.’ An author of the paper , Dr Susan Méndez, said they found that even ‘among boys and girls who scored exactly the same in numeracy results in their early years of high schooling, the boys were much more likely to choose STEM subjects for their final school years.’ The research also shows that ‘when girls did choose those subjects [physics and information technology] they actually performed better, on average, than boys.’

Of course there are exceptions to girls dropping out of STEM subjects in high school. For example last year a number of girls got top HSC marks in subjects such as science and automotive studies. Some of the highest-achieving girls cited a passion for their subject outside of school studies, or they had family members who were working in the industry. But when trying to address the gap in STEM education it comes down to numbers – not as many girls participate in these subjects and not at the same levels as boys.

It’s not about girls being fundamentally worse at these subjects than boys, rather it is that they lack self- confidence in these areas. The OECD report found that, ‘Girls – even high-achieving girls – are also more likely to express strong feelings of anxiety towards mathematics. However, when comparing boys and girls who reported similar levels of self-confidence in mathematics …the gender gap in performance disappears.’ These findings suggest that if girls’ confidence can be increased in these areas, this will help to reduce the gender gap. This issue of gender differences in the study of STEM subjects appears to be one which can be changed by altering society’s attitude towards what are perceived as ‘boys’ subjects. Teachers, parents, government and society at large all have a role to play.

Why is it an issue if girls are choosing not to study these subjects? Aside from the issue of girls with aptitude in these areas not pursuing them and letting their talents go to waste; discontinuing their studies in these areas also plays a part in disadvantaging girls in later life. Not studying STEM subjects in high school and university can impact on future career choices and their potential earnings.

Studies, including the University of Melbourne study, have found that women’s lack of participation in STEM is a contributing factor in the gender pay gap. If girls drop out of these subjects in high school and don’t pursue them at tertiary levels they are already limiting their job opportunities as well as their chances of achieving higher salaries. ‘Women’s underrepresentation in high-paying jobs in engineering and information technology reflects earlier patterns in high school and contributes substantially to the gender wage gap.’

Perhaps part of the problem is also due to a lack of the visibility of women working in these industries, caused by their lower participation in these areas. Girls often have difficulty picturing themselves having careers in STEM fields. On average across OECD countries, less than 5% of girls contemplate pursuing a career in engineering and computing. In virtually all countries, the number of boys thinking of a career in computing or engineering exceeds the number of girls contemplating such a career.’

Governments and organisations across the world, are trying to address this problem with investment to encourage girls to stay in STEM education, and campaigns and events to encourage women to enter the rapidly-growing STEM workforce. Then there are campaigns such as the #ILookLikeAnEngineer on Twitter which started when a female engineer posted a photo of herself with this hashtag to increase the visibility of female role models. In Australia the Science 50:50 program was developed to encourage more Australian girls and women into careers in science and technology by running events such as science career panels and mentoring programs.

While in some areas the gender gap is closing, there is still more work to be done if equality within STEM education and the STEM workforce is to be achieved.  The high numbers of girls dropping out of STEM education leads to disadvantages in terms of future career and pay opportunities, and without more women entering the STEM workforce there may be difficulties finding enough workers for these industries in the future. It also means that the STEM industries are missing out on the different perspectives, ideas and solutions which could be provided by more women entering the field.

Image: Jesse Orrico


Jess - Bio PicJessica Sheather-Neumann is the organiser of a writers group in Canberra with over 50 members. She reads and writes young adult novels and has been published in First, the University of Canberra’s creative writing magazine. She has a Graduate Certificate in Editing and Publishing. You can find her on Twitter @ReadingJessica.

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