Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) skills are crucial to a prosperous economy.
This is why governments invest heavily in STEM education and research.
A major focus of this investment has been addressing the shortage of women in STEM. Yet women are still significantly underrepresented in many parts of the sector.
The situation in some countries is even worse. In Turkey, women make up just 5% of the science and technology workforce.
Girls tend to have the same level of interest in mathematics and science as boys throughout their primary schooling. But girls' interest in these subjects wanes in adolescence. This leads to fewer women than men studying STEM subjects in higher education and even fewer going on to have a career in STEM.
Using the insights and observations of educational experts and women working in the field, this article examines why fewer women than men work in STEM. It highlights ways that schools, parents, policymakers, and researchers can get more girls into STEM so they continue their STEM education and enter STEM-related careers.
- More girls and young women studying STEM subjects benefits all of society, not just the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics sectors
- There isn't a shortage of women in all areas of STEM
- Gender stereotypes and a lack of role models are among the reasons why fewer girls than boys get into STEM, but the attractiveness of careers in other fields is also a factor
- Girls tend to do better than boys in STEM-related subjects at school
- Parents and carers can help girls develop a "STEM identity" from a young age
Why we need more girls in STEM
"Historically, researchers and policymakers paid attention to increasing women in STEM for gender equity," says Dr. Hyun Kyoung Ro, co-editor of Gender Equity in STEM in Higher Education and Associate Professor of Counseling and Higher Education at the University of North Texas.
"STEM professions often pay better than other professional sectors, thus having more women in STEM can decrease the gender gap in earnings."
But a diversified workforce is more than just about equity. Attracting and retaining more women in STEM benefits the sector – and society – too.
"STEM disciplines have been known as white, middle-income, heterosexual, able-bodied, and men-dominated fields," adds Dr. Ro.
We are excluding some smart, talented, and curious women from the field – all of their potential work, discoveries, and intellectual gifts to the field are lost
"Technology designed by engineers and scientists with diverse backgrounds can advance products and services for consumers who have diverse needs. That’s why we need more women in STEM – particularly women of color and women scientists who have diverse social identities and backgrounds."
This ultimately boosts innovation, creativity, and competitiveness.
"We are excluding some smart, talented, and curious women from the field," adds Maryann Stimmer, Senior Technical Advisor for STEM Programs at FHI 360, a non-profit that partners with governments and organizations to bring about positive social change and provide quality education.
"All of their potential work, discoveries, and intellectual gifts to the field are lost. What if Barbara McClintock hadn’t been so persistent about a STEM career? All of Watson and Crick’s work [on DNA] grew from hers.
"What if Adriana Ocampo hadn’t defied the odds of becoming a planetary geologist? How far behind in planetary analysis would we be?"
Effect on retention
More women in STEM can also help tackle the "masculine default" in organizations that leads to women leaving STEM or not starting a STEM career in the first place:
"I have experience of female engineers quitting engineering jobs for teaching positions," says Dr. Doras Sibanda, Senior Lecturer in Chemistry Education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and regular contributor to journals including the African Journal of Research in Mathematics, Science and Technology Education and Education 3–13.
"This is a reflection that the workplace has not changed in terms of work expectations for men and women."
The "STEM literacy" capabilities girls develop in school and higher education are also important in all fields, not just STEM:
"This increases their chances of engaging with and viewing the world through a rational lens, and using STEM knowledge and skills to improve their own life chances and those of others," says Dr. Anne Forbes, Senior Lecturer in STEM Education at Macquarie School of Education and co-author of STEM Education in the Primary School: A Teacher's Toolkit.
Professor Emma Smith, Head of the Department of Education Studies at the University of Warwick and regular contributor to journals including Oxford Review of Education also highlights the significance of STEM literacy:
"There is the importance of having a scientifically literate population who can consume basic scientific information so they are able to engage critically with issues that concern us today – whether it is about understanding the climate emergency or the need to maintain a healthy lifestyle, as well as evaluating the risks associated with COVID and so on."
Are there fewer women than men in all areas of STEM?
"When we approach STEM as a broad category, we often miss the complexity of STEM sub-disciplines in terms of gender equity issues," says Dr. Ro.
"At the undergraduate level of higher education, only some STEM fields have a lack of women."
"When policymakers talk about STEM subjects, they tend to be referring to a relatively narrow range – usually the natural sciences, mathematics, engineering, and technology," adds Professor Smith.
"There are fewer girls and young women ‘getting into’ some of these subjects and participation can be highly gendered – for example higher proportions of females studying biological sciences and higher proportions of males studying engineering.
"By focusing on this relatively narrow range of subjects we may forget that there are other areas of STEM where higher proportions of women do take part – such as the behavioral sciences – notably psychology – and the medical sciences – especially nursing."
However, even this can lead to fewer women moving onto a career in a sub-category of the field:
"The STEM subject areas with the highest rates of graduate employment – such as the engineering sciences – are those dominated by male students.
"Those with the lowest rates of graduate employment – the biological sciences, for example – are dominated by female students," says Professor Smith.
Why fewer girls than boys go into STEM
"There are many reasons at individual, institutional, and societal levels that prevent women from pursuing STEM degrees and careers," says Dr. Ro.
"It's a complex problem with many factors," adds Dr. Forbes.
Competency isn't a cause
"Among individual factors, research has shown that girls are as good at math – or even better – and as interested in math as boys," says Dr. Ro.
"The 2015 National Center for Education Statistics' Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) reported that, at Grade 8 level, only 6 out of the 39 participating countries reflected a statistically significant gender gap favoring boys," adds Professor Sarah Bansilal, Professor of Mathematics Education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and Chief Editor of African Journal of Research in Mathematics, Science and Technology Education.
"Meanwhile, seven countries reported a statistically significant gender difference favoring girls."
Girls underestimate their science abilities
So if it's not competency in STEM subjects holding girls back from a career in STEM, what is?
"Gender stereotypes against girls and women are still ongoing in STEM learning and STEM fields," says Dr. Ro.
"Parents, teachers, and community members may not see the potential in STEM for girls and young women, particularly for women of color.
"White and Asian girls may consider STEM careers because they are often exposed to doctors, engineers, or scientists of their same race.
"Latina and Black women students may not have as many chances to interact with same-race STEM professionals."
Dr. Forbes agrees: "Uninformed or biased perspectives by advertisers, media program developers, parents, relatives, and teachers combine to provide a male-centric view of STEM.
"This excludes or marginalizes girls and young women from engaging with STEM ways of thinking and working."
Dr. Forbes highlights these examples:
- Advertisers of children's toys presenting STEM as a male domain
- Parents, carers, and relatives making decisions about whether to enroll their children in STEM activities
- Teacher ignorance or bias when preparing and implementing learning experiences
This can feed into societal norms about gendered roles, says Professor Smith:
"Recent research with secondary-age students shows that the image of a lone scientist – usually male – 'mixing things' in their lab persists. This is despite decades of interventions to widen knowledge about the breadth of STEM careers and promote the notion of ‘science for all.'"
Girls also tend to have less belief than boys in their STEM-related skills.
"Girls underestimate their science abilities," says Dr. Forbes.
"A recent study by Webb-Williams made the disturbing finding that, while primary school boys’ and girls’ 'actual performance in science was similar… girls consistently (and in some cases grossly) underestimated their science performance.'
"Girls mostly did this by negatively comparing their work with that of nearby peers and being highly sensitive to negative verbal, facial, and physical gestures from their peers or teacher," adds Dr. Forbes.
This means fewer women choosing certain STEM-related subjects at school and in higher education, and fewer choosing a career in some sub-disciplines of STEM.
Another possible reason for this lack of self-belief is due to what researchers call the "stereotype threat."
This is where fear of confirming the negative stereotypes about women and girls in STEM causes girls to doubt their abilities and underperform.
Options beyond STEM
"I think we also need to consider whether any under-representation is not because of an informed and considered choice on their part," says Professor Smith.
"There is an expanded choice of subjects to study, both at post-16 and, for those who go, university. There are also a lot of different career paths, and it may be that many girls and young women see opportunities and challenges beyond the traditionally defined borders of STEM."
Why are there more women in STEM in the Middle East and North Africa?
In a book chapter in Gender Equity in STEM in Higher Education, authors Seungah S. Lee, Christine Min Wotipka, and Francisco O. Ramirez highlight that 45% of STEM degree holders in the Middle East and northern Africa are women. This is a much higher figure than in North America and Europe, where the figure is just 30%.
"Some scholars argue that countries with high levels of gender equality have the largest STEM disparities by gender in secondary and post-secondary education," says Dr. Ro.
"They have claimed that when economic opportunities are higher and risks are less – as is the case in most gender-equal countries – individuals may choose academic and career paths based on their interests and academic strengths."
In Gender Equity in STEM in Higher Education, "Lee and her colleagues found a similar pattern across countries and discussed how both men and women students may choose a field of study based on individual preferences in Western society and individualist cultures," adds Dr. Ro.
This could help explain why fewer women study STEM degrees in North America and Europe and why the Middle Eastern and north African region may be more open to women in STEM.
How to get more girls and young women into STEM
Policymakers, schools and universities, and parents can all play a part in encouraging and supporting girls so they're more likely to develop and retain an interest in STEM.
This can start early in a girl's life:
"A person’s identity begins to form from birth," says Dr. Forbes.
"Well before a child leaves primary school their 'STEM identity' is – or is not – developing, and notably, it takes time to develop."
What can parents and carers do?
"Parents should ensure they do not have different expectations for girls and boys, in terms of academic performance, sports, and responsibilities at home," says Professor Bansilal.
"Set high expectations for children irrespective of gender."
"Parents should not assign gender roles to children at a young age," adds Dr. Sibanda.
"They should also support girls in the same way they support boys, both financially and emotionally."
"Give them experiences that let them explore – and sometimes make a mess," says Ms. Stimmer.
"Make oobleck with young children. Encourage building and asking questions. Let them take guesses and learn to refine their answers.
Well before a child leaves primary school their 'STEM identity' is – or is not – developing
"There are so many resources out there now for parents. Even NASA has activities for families to have fun and learn."
Parents also need to be aware of other influences in the community away from school.
"Religious and cultural leaders need to be sensitized to their influence on parents and youngsters," says Professor Bansilal.
For example, "some religious texts portray girls as being subservient to boys and that males are more important than females.
"In places where religion is viewed as most important, then those perspectives are not questioned by the participants."
What can schools and universities do?
"Schools need to make sure there is a good representation of STEM teachers in terms of gender, so successful female teachers can act as role models to their learners," says Professor Bansilal.
Ms. Stimmer agrees: "Create a 'woke' faculty."
Dr. Ro highlights that role models are especially important for Latina and Black students:
"These students do not see role models in their STEM classes. The instruction is isolated from relevant contexts and from students’ identities, and peer culture may be too competitive rather than collaborative," she says.
"Faculty and administrators should offer more inclusive and welcoming environments to women, particularly to women of color, otherwise they tend to choose other majors which better represent and serve them."
"They should also make sure that teachers do not promote gendered stereotypes of people who are successful in mathematics and ensure that cultural and social norms that promote gendered attitudes and expectations are recognized and discouraged within the school," adds Professor Bansilal.
Women teachers can also help girls improve their performance in STEM subjects:
"Research by Sullivan and Bers observed that female teachers may have a greater favorable impact on girls’ performance in robotics and coding activities than male teachers," says Jiahong Su, a researcher in technology and early childhood education at the University of Hong Kong.
Ensuring exposure to STEM subjects
"Exposure to math and advanced math in secondary school is crucial," says Dr. Ro.
"High schools that do not have a lot of funding and resources – which often have more Black and Latinx students – often do not offer advanced math courses – e.g., Algebra II and Calculus.
"To encourage Latina and Black women students in STEM, an early exposure to math courses through K–12 education is also key," she adds.
Faculty and administrators should offer more inclusive and welcoming environments to women, particularly to women of color
Professor Bansilal thinks there could be a link between the quality of a school and girls' participation in math and other STEM subjects:
"When schools focus on effective teaching, learning, and academic success, gender differences may not be so noticeable because everybody is focused on improving themselves.
"In a dysfunctional school, the management struggles with making sure that normal activities are done properly. In such a case, practices that discourage girls may not be recognized amongst the 'noise' of all the other factors needing attention."
"Make STEM as hands-on as possible," adds Ms. Stimmer.
"Not just in the science classes, but across the board... hands-on math! Give girls more opportunities to engage before, during, and after school."
How much should schools do?
"There are a number of potentially conflicting roles for school science education," says Professor Smith.
"Is its purpose to provide scientific training for a minority in preparation for university and the labor market? Or is there a broader social aim of educating a scientifically literate population, as well as encouraging an enjoyment of learning science for its own sake?"
"We know that making science compulsory in the U.K. more than 30 years ago had little impact on recruitment to STEM subjects at university. So it is difficult to see what further efforts schools can make – particularly within a system that restricts the choice of subjects post-16 and again at university."
The power of female role models
In their paper, "When Do Female Role Models Benefit Women? The Importance of Differentiating Recruitment From Retention in STEM," Benjamin J. Drury, John Oliver Siy, and Sapna Cheryan highlight how female role models can protect girls and young women from the negative stereotypes that can lead to them underperforming and leaving the field (the "stereotype threat").
Their research found:
- Women who are highly identified with math perform better on a math test when they encounter a woman portrayed as highly competent in math
- Women who take a calculus course with a female teacher have better attitudes toward math
- Women who read about a successful graduate of their university who majored in the same field rated themselves higher on success-related traits
What can policymakers and researchers do?
"We still need to learn more about the situations under which girls flourish in STEM and those which limit their participation," says Professor Bansilal.
Ms. Su agrees: "We need more STEM research that only focuses on girls."
Dr. Ro highlights the need to ensure girls from all backgrounds are included in efforts to get more girls into STEM:
"We should try to focus on the representation of women who have diverse backgrounds – and not just white women or Asian women, particularly in the United States. Throughout K–12 education to higher education, and then to the STEM workforce.
"Also, girls who have the potential for STEM careers – i.e., those who are good at math – tend to be good at other subjects such as literacy. So they have more options to choose from in other majors or careers.
"Thus, having more intentional efforts to prevent the 'STEM pipeline leakage' throughout education and the workforce to keep women is necessary."
The recruitment of female scientists... tends to be motivated by economic concerns rather than a desire to include more women in important and fulfilling careers
Dr. Ro suggests a sector-wide effort, involving industry and education:
"STEM higher education, industry, and professional associations should offer vision and strategic planning to promote more women engineers and scientists.
"It is a long journey. It should be started from early childhood education and higher education and industry should be engaged in the early stage as well."
"There needs to be a centralized response internationally and nationally," adds Dr. Forbes
Reviewing the 'why' of policy and research
"The recruitment of female scientists is often framed in policy discussions as a way to overcome perceived shortfalls in the numbers of STEM workers and tends to be motivated by economic concerns rather than a desire to include more women in important and fulfilling careers," says Professor Smith.
"This is an important point, especially when, as our research has shown, studying STEM subjects is generally advantageous for men in terms of accessing highly skilled STEM employment but was not always associated with higher status occupations among women."
Case study: The "Discover!" Saturday science-activity club for young secondary school-aged girls
In "Confirming the legitimacy of female participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM): evaluation of a UK STEM initiative for girls" for the British Journal of Sociology of Education, author Richard Watermeyer presents a study of the Discover! club for girls aged 12 and 13.
Discover! is dedicated to changing dominant cultural attitudes that discourage female learners from considering STEM, subject, and occupational areas traditionally dominated by men. It uses single-sex workshops and same-sex tutors, encouraging participants to "play-act" as scientists.
The study found that programs like Discover! can enhance learners' interest in STEM subjects and help them visualize their futures as STEM professionals.
- A 'great way to get on'? The early career destinations of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics graduates by Emma Smith and Patrick White in Research Papers in Education
- Bush kinders: enabling girls' STEM identities in early childhood by Chris Speldewinde and Coral Campbell in Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning
- Children's views on making and designing by Maria Hatzigianni, et al. in European Early Childhood Education Research Journal
- Developing culturally and developmentally appropriate early STEM learning experiences by Hui Li, Anne Forbes, and Weipeng Yang in Early Education and Development
- From subject choice to career path: Female STEM graduates in the UK labour market by Patrick White and Emma Smith in Oxford Review of Education
- Gender stereotyping in mothers' and teachers' perceptions of boys’ and girls’ mathematics performance in Ireland by Selina McCoy, Selinaa, Delma Byrne, and Pat O'Connor in Oxford Review of Education
- Hack Along with Goldieblox: Gender messages in engineering Youtube videos for girls by Emily Blosser in Journal of Gender Studies
- Influences of gender and socioeconomic status on children’s use of robotics in early childhood education: a systematic review by Jiahong Su, Weipeng Yang, and Yuchun Zhong in Early Education and Development
- Investigating the importance of girls’ mathematical identity within United States STEM programmes: a systematic review by Felix Fernandez et al. in International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology
- Moving along the STEM pipeline? The long-term employment patterns of science, technology, engineering, and maths graduates in the United Kingdom by Emma Smith and Patrick White in Research Papers in Education
- Breaking Through! Helping Girls Succeed in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math by Harriet S. Mosatche, Elizabeth Lawner, and Susan Matloff-Nieves (read the first chapter online for free)
- Gender Equity in STEM in Higher Education: International Perspectives on Policy, Institutional Culture, and Individual Choice edited by Hyun Kyoung Ro, Frank Fernandez, Elizabeth J. Ramon (read the entire book online for free)
- Girls into Science and Technology: The Story of a Project by Judith Whyte (read the first chapter online for free)
As well as thanking the contributors featured in the article, we'd also like to thank the following experts for their insights: