X Close

Institute of Education Blog

Home

Expert opinion from academics at the UCL Institute of Education

Menu

Women are less likely to study STEM subjects – but disadvantaged women are even less so

Blog Editor, IOE Digital10 July 2017

Natasha Codiroli Mcmaster

There is a vast amount of research showing that women are less likely to study STEM subjects. This is a persistent finding in countries across the world and at all levels of education, and this ultimately leads to a divided workforce. With STEM subjects often paying higher salaries, it is a key contributor to the gender pay gap. Recent research also suggests that STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) skills are required for 1 in 6 non-STEM occupations, and estimates expect this to group considerably over time.

What was less clear, until recently, was how consistent these divisions were depending on children’s social circumstances. To address this, I analysed data from a nationally representative cohort of more than 4,000 students in England. The data included information on students’ subject choices in Higher Education and academic attainment. Students’ parents were also interviewed and asked a wide range of questions about their social circumstances, such as their level of education, income, and job type.

My study showed that whilst young men were drawn towards STEM subjects regardless of their parents’ social position, young women from less advantaged social backgrounds were particularly less likely to study STEM subjects. For the most advantaged third of students, there was no gender gap. This suggests that whatever is holding young women back from studying STEM is only acting as a barrier to relatively disadvantaged young women.

Qualitative exploration of the ‘types’ of young women who choose to study post-compulsory physics compliments these findings. Researchers on the ASPIRES project interviewed more than 70 students in depth throughout their schooling and found that girls studying physics tended to be from highly educated and well-off families, often with parents also working in STEM jobs.

It is becoming more apparent that this is not only the case in England. Another recent study has found similar results, this time using representative data from the Netherlands. Not only were gender differences in choice of STEM subjects smaller for the most advantaged students, but the gender differences in choice of subjects typically dominated by women were also reduced. Young men from well-off backgrounds were more likely to study health and related subjects than their less well-off peers.

Gender norms, parenting, and family background

Why are privileged young women more likely to study STEM subjects? A focal issue in getting women into STEM is socialisation about what is ‘for’ girls and what is ‘for’ boys. This starts early, from the differences in toys advertised towards girls and boys to the ways in which adults engage with babies of different genders.Whilst advertising campaigns with a clear gender bias – like the recent GAP campaign in which girls were described a ‘social butterflies’ and boys as ‘little scholars’ – are often met with derision, they undoubtedly have an effect on children. Girls are expected to want to care for others, whilst boys are expected to want to build things. As children get older, boys are more likely to be praised for their natural intelligence, and STEM subjects are often seen as only for the brightest and most gifted students.

This explains to some extent why young women would be less likely to study STEM subjects, but not why more advantaged young women seem to be more resilient to these effects. One possibility is that their parents’ education level is directly associated with their ideas about gender norms, and this is passed on to their children. There is evidence to suggest that higher educated parents have less traditional views about gender roles. Perhaps more educated parents are better at shielding their children from the stereotyping they will experience as they get older?

Students are not only stereotyped by gender but also their class background and family income. Students from less privileged backgrounds are rated as less able than their peers, even when they have similar levels of attainment, and as noted previously, STEM subjects are often seen as for particularly brainy students. So, disadvantaged students would likely need to have great resilience to deal with these multiple stereotypes.

How do we go forward?

The government’s Industrial Strategy Green Paper highlights the need to increase STEM skills overall, with acknowledgment that increasing uptake of under-represented groups is a key way to address current skills gaps. The results of these studies could be extremely useful in closing the gender gap in access to STEM subjects as a whole. Currently, the majority of interventions aimed at getting more women into STEM are targeted at all girls and young women. Findings from this research suggest that perhaps more focus needs to be put into interventions targeting less advantaged girls in particular.

Students from lower SES groups are less likely to receive good quality careers advice but are the ones who need it most. A clear way to get more students to study STEM would be to give them knowledge of the wide range of careers available upon graduation after studying STEM, or of the subjects they need to study at GCSE and A-level to study STEM at university. Advantaged students, particularly those whose parents work in STEM spheres are most likely to already have access to this knowledge.

There are approaches that could help close the gap without targeting. The WISE campaign People Like Me helps dispel myths that there’s just one type of STEM professional (usually male and from a well-off background). Whilst the EDF Energy Pretty Curious campaign was clumsy in language, it challenged the notion that femininity is incompatible with STEM. There are also increasing examples of diverse scientists in popular culture. For example Iron Man is an accomplished engineer and most recently represented as a black woman. A move towards these positive representations may be particularly persuading for children growing up with strong traditional gender norms, or with other stereotypes to contend with. But we also need more representation of ‘every-day’ female scientists to combat the myths that only extremely academically gifted people are suited to science and maths.

________

Note: this article draws on the author’s published work in the British Educational Research Journal (DOI: 10.1002/berj.3270). She is a PhD student at the IOE.

This post first appeared on the LSE British Politics and Policy Blog
Image credit: aitoff, Pixabay/Public Domain

Why are girls in the UK doing so much less well than boys in school science?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital5 March 2015

Michael Reiss
An education report from the OECD is nowadays nearly always big news, and today’s on Gender Equality in Education is no exception. Gender has always been important in education. What the report shows, which will surprise some, and should concern all of us, is that new gender gaps in education are opening up. These are particularly apparent in the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).
Some indication of the magnitude of some of these gender differences is indicated by the finding that in OECD countries in 2012, only 14% of young women who entered university for the first time chose science-related fields of study, including engineering, manufacturing and construction. However, 39% of young men who entered university that year chose to (more…)

Science and mathematics education for 2030: vision or dream?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital1 July 2014

Michael J Reiss
After three years of work and nine commissioned reports, the Royal Society has published its vision for science and mathematics education. It may not push Luis Suarez or Andy Coulson off the front pages but this is a most impressive document that deserves to have a major and long-lasting impact on UK science and mathematics education policy.
The committee that produced the report features a list of intellectual and society heavyweights – if you don’t have a knighthood, a dameship or a Nobel Prize or you aren’t a Fellow of the Royal Society, that may explain why you weren’t invited to sit on it. Behind these titles sits a huge amount of expertise and very considerable passion to improve education.
The Vision aims to raise the general level of mathematical and scientific knowledge and confidence in the population by focusing on changes to how science and mathematics are taught to 5- to 18-year-olds. Some of its recommendations are already taking place, at least to some extent – for instance, that teachers should be trained to engage fully with digital technologies – but others are more contentious.
For example, the report calls for a move away from the current A level system to a Baccalaureate. Such a move would benefit not only science and mathematics but other subjects too. However, I won’t hold my breath to see if it happens – and it will certainly require a change of government. People have been calling for A levels to be replaced by a system with less early specialism for longer than I can remember.
The report also calls for the establishment of new, independent, expert bodies to provide stability in curriculum and assessment and allow teachers space to innovate in their teaching. Following the bonfire of the quangos after the last General Election, the need for such bodies has become clearer than ever. But who is to pay for them? This is not a report overburdened by economic analysis (there isn’t any). Perhaps the Royal Society and other funders need to step in and establish something akin to the successful Nuffield Council on Bioethics, which manages to be independent yet shapes national policy and practice.
Science and mathematics education are in a fortunate position in the UK, compared to many other subjects. Industry clamours for more STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) graduates and technicians and the UK is an acknowledged world leader in STEM research. A decade ago, work by David Sainsbury, Alan Wilson, John Holman, Celia Hoyles and others helped turn around a long-running decline in the numbers of 16-year-olds choosing A levels in mathematics and the physical sciences. Let’s hope this report takes those successes to the next level.