Why aren’t more girls choosing maths and science at university?

by Dirk Van Damme

Head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress division, Directorate for Education and Skills 

Percentage of tertiary qualifications awarded to women in tertiary-type A and advanced research programmes, by field of education (2000,2012)

Last Saturday, 14 April, Equal Pay Day reminded the world again of the large gap between men’s and women’s wages. Eradicating unjustifiable gender inequalities in earnings seems to be very hard to accomplish. Under-representation of women in jobs with higher salaries, different patterns of professional mobility and divergent occupational choices all seem to contribute to the gender gap in wages – in addition to outright gender discrimination. Closing this gap requires more than changes in wage structures, since occupational choices often reflect complex, gender-specific educational choices and schooling trajectories that are decided at least a decade earlier. Gender preferences, stereotypes, role models and forms of streaming and tracking frame decisions about education throughout childhood, and have profound consequences for both careers and earnings in adulthood.

But the gender gap in earnings is not only a problem for the individuals concerned; the gap is also indicative of the waste of talent and opportunities for societies and economies. Especially in those fields of study and careers that suffer severe shortages of personnel, such as the STEM fields, it is the lack of women that seems to raise the most immediate concern. That is why campaigns to promote STEM studies and professions in OECD countries often target women. Evidence of the success of these campaigns is scarce and mostly mixed.
But on an aggregate level, have OECD countries been successful in attracting more girls and women into STEM studies? The most recent Education Indicators in Focus issue No. 30 provides some interesting recent data on gender gaps in education and employment. In recent decades, significant progress has been made in raising women’s educational attainment, so that, on average, women now have higher attainment rates than men. Also, the higher the education level, the smaller the gender gap in employment. On average across OECD countries, the employment gap between tertiary-educated men and women now is only 9 percentage points, whereas it is 17 percentage points between men and women whose highest level of education is upper secondary. But this progress has only marginally affected gender inequalities in different fields of study.
The chart above shows that between 2000 and 2012 the percentage of university qualifications awarded to women grew in almost every field of study, except computing. The progress made by women was observed across the fields of study, but did not at all alter the pattern of women’s participation. STEM fields did attract more women, but not disproportionally more compared to other fields.

This finding raises important questions  about how and what boys and girls choose to study, how they make those decisions, and the role of schools and education systems in reproducing gender-specific education trajectories. A report based on PISA 2012 data published last week – The ABC of Gender Equality in Education – sheds some light on some of the underlying reasons why more women are not pursuing STEM subjects. The results of the study are discomforting for those who think that more and better education for girls would help to undermine stereotyped notions about studies and careers. Girls seem to lack self-confidence in their ability to solve maths and science problems. Girls – even high-achieving girls – are also more likely to express strong feelings of anxiety towards mathematics. On average across OECD countries, the score-point difference in mathematics performance between high-achieving girls and boys is 19 score points. However, when comparing boys and girls who reported similar levels of self-confidence in mathematics and of anxiety towards mathematics, the gender gap in performance disappears.

These findings resonate with some recent research on the role of early school experiences in shaping one’s identity as a “maths person” or “not a maths person”. The teaching of maths – and, to a lesser extent, science – seems to involve a process of negative selection based on induced anxiety; and this process is heavily gender-biased. Recent neuro-scientific research has shown that teaching maths can be done much more effectively and successfully for every learner, but these insights rarely find their way into teacher training, curricula and educational resources,  where maths seems to be defined as something only a few, mostly males, can master. In a world in which numbers pervade all spheres of life, schools and universities could do a better job in challenging gender-stereotyped ideas about maths and science, both as fields of study and as a career choice. In the 21st century, we simply don’t have the luxury to continue wasting the talents of our motivated and hard-working young women and men.
Education Indicators in Focus, issue No. 30, by Eric Charbonnier, Simon Normandeau and Gara Rojas Gonzalez
On this topic, visit:
Education Indicators in Focus: www.oecd.org/education/indicators
On the OECD’s education indicators, visit:
Education at a Glance 2014: OECD Indicators: www.oecd.org/edu/eag.htm
Chart Source @ OECD (2014), Education at a Glance 2014: OECD Indicators, Indicator A3

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