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Why aren’t there more women in STEM?

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Four fields sharing various similarities in both theory and practice all condensed into one acronym. We all know the importance of these complex subjects and the diversity within the STEM fields is often a topic of much discussion. The majority of people working in STEM careers are men; women make up just 26% of the workforce in 2019. I want to think about the reasons, right from the very beginning of a person’s academic journey, behind this gender gap, and maybe, what can be done about it.

First of all, let me invite you back into the classroom.

You’re in the top set for mathematics, so you’re one of the brightest students in your school in terms of mathematical ability (for me, this takes an enormous amount of imagination, in my early teens I could barely tell the time, though I’m confident I’m alone in this regard). If you look around at your peers, the gender difference is pretty much unnoticeable. This is the same for your science classes, you’re still amongst the best students, but again there is approximately the same number of girls and boys.

This isn’t just me attempting to induce a warm feeling of nostalgia, it’s an actual statistic. The gender gap between students achieving astronomical grades in STEM subjects at school is tiny, if not non-existent. So it’s not that there aren’t equal numbers of girls to boys when it comes to who could go on to become scientists and engineers. The question is then, why don’t these potential female scientists and mathematicians actually go on to fill STEM fields as their male counterparts do?

While many may leap onto the suggestion that it’s down to cultural norms, there are numerous studies that disagree. If we were to rank countries according to how ‘flat’ their socio-cultural landscapes are (Scandinavian countries would be at the top because they’ve been tackling gender inequality for decades), we’d find that in those countries where the socio-cultural norms are similar for men and women, the gender split in STEM careers is actually greater, not smaller. Again, this research was actually conducted a number of years ago, and, indeed, the findings shocked the researchers so much that the study was repeated. Across a vast array of countries and taking into account millions of people, these results therefore, are rather hard to dispute*

The answer to my question isn’t socio-cultural norms then, so what on Earth is it?

I would suggest that it’s interest.

When looking at career choices made by men and women, one finds that they’re driven in part by temperamental differences (which for those interested in psychology come from the ‘Big Five’ model; extroversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness) but that, by far, the biggest difference between men and women, besides physical factors, is interest. But, in the classroom, an equal number of boys and girls are found to excel in maths and science, as discussed earlier, and in order to do so well in these subjects they must be interested in them, mustn’t they? Surely then, that must mean that something is quelling the childhood interest of these bright, young women.

Let’s go back to that classroom.

For me, and for most people I know, the teacher is a chap in a jazzy tie. The predominance of men in STEM fields extends to the teaching profession, most mathematics and science teachers are men, whereas women tend to fill languages and the humanities (I, myself, am currently studying to teach secondary school English, so I can verify this personally). We know that they’re there, but just think about how many women we actually see working in STEM. Far too few.

My own conclusion, therefore, is that part of the reason that women’s interest in STEM is being quelled is because they don’t see enough of those women who actually do work in those professions. I would argue that people tend to be put off doing something if they can’t see themselves doing it, so to speak. The simple fact that girls don’t see those women who do work in STEM means they can’t see what they have in common with them, and how it’s women just like them who go on to be successful.

My own ideas about what could be done about this will be shared in my next blog, but for now, perhaps you could leave us your own thoughts on this particular issue. What do you think is deterring young women from pursuing STEM?

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*An important point to bear in mind is that there are, of course, some demographics that would have escaped this study. Low-income families, for example, wouldn’t necessarily have the resources required for those children to excel at school. My conclusion that it is lack of interest that stops more girls entering STEM is drawn from those who are at the very top of mathematical and scientific ability; why there aren’t more people from various socio-economic backgrounds at this level is its own separate question.

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