Facts and Figures: Cracking the Code: Girls’ and Women’s Education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)
Key indicators show we’re deprived of the talents and potential contributions of millions of women due to clear gender-based discrepancies in STEM education and occupations
- The gender gap in STEM education is striking. In higher education, only 35% of all students enrolled in STEM-related fields are females.
- Enrolment is particularly low in ICT (3%); natural sciences, mathematics and statistics (5%); as well as engineering, manufacturing and construction (8%). Participation is highest in health and welfare (15%) studies.
- In Europe, only 29 of 1,000 female graduates had a degree in computing in 2015, and just four out of 1,000 went on to have ICT careers.
Girls’ own perceptions of their abilities play a crucial role in this divide
- Self-efficacy affects STEM education outcomes, aspirations for relevant careers and performance. PISA 2015 shows that girls have lower self-efficacy in science and mathematics than boys – a difference that has remained largely unchanged since 2006.
- In countries where the 10% top-performing boys score significantly above the 10% top-performing girls in science, there tends to be a larger gender gap in self-efficacy in boys’ favour.
- ICILS 2013 found that in Grade 8, girls scored better than boys in all participating countries in computer and information literacy, with an average difference of 18 points. However, in all participating countries again, girls’ perceived self-efficacy in advanced ICT skills was significantly lower than boy’s.
A variety of factors influence learning outcomes in STEM
- PISA 2015 found that boys tend to enjoy science more than girls in most participating countries (29 of 47). The differences in boys’ favour were particularly wide in Taiwan Province of China, France, Germany, Japan and the Republic of Korea. Girls were more likely than boys to report enjoying science in only 18 of the 47 countries, particularly in Jordan and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
- In OECD countries, girls’ science performance appears to be strongly associated with parents’ beliefs and higher education qualifications. Mothers, more than fathers, appear to have a greater influence on their daughters’ education and career choices.
- Higher socio-economic status is also linked with higher scores in mathematics for both boys and girls. PISA 2015 found that a one-unit increase in the PISA Index of Economic, Social and Cultural Status resulted in an increase of 38 score points in science and 37 in mathematics.
- Girls might be discouraged from taking STEM subjects if their peers, particularly female friends, view these subjects as inappropriate for women, significantly affecting their interest and confidence.
- Girls reported stronger feelings of tension and anxiety related to mathematics performance in many studies and are more likely to suffer from test anxiety than boys. Mathematics anxiety has been linked to a decline in performance of 34 score points – equivalent to almost one year of school.
- Girls’ lower confidence in STEM subjects is reflected in their social media communications. A Latin American study revealed that one-third of students’ social media shares about women and girls in STEM were sexist, while 75% of all self-mocking messages about math were posted by girls.
Biases embedded within school systems must be addressed
- Teachers can create a biased classroom environment, dissuading girls from pursuing STEM studies. For example, TERCE 2013 found that in Latin America up to 20% of mathematics teachers in Grade 6 believed that mathematics was easier for boys. A review of studies in the US found that teachers’ expectations regarding mathematics were often gender-biased, which could influence girls’ performance. A recent study in the United Kingdom and Ireland found that 57% of teachers held subconscious gender stereotypes in relation to STEM.
- Classroom observations have shown that girls are accorded less time in the classroom for instruction, ask fewer questions and receive less praise than boys. One study in Asia found that 65% and 61% of student-teacher interactions in mathematics and science classes respectively were with boys.
- A recent UNESCO review of more than 110 national curricula in primary and secondary schools in 78 countries found that many mathematics and science textbooks and other learning materials conveyed gender bias. For example, in India, more than 50% of illustrations in mathematics and science textbooks at primary level portrayed only male characters, while just 6% showed only female ones.