While globally, there are now more women going to university than men, in some subjects a huge gender gap persists – especially in the ‘STEM’ subjects.
TopUniversities.com finds out more about the STEM gender gap, and asks why so few women study science and technology subjects at university.
According to industry news site The Engineer, women constitute just 8.7% of professional engineers in the UK. This is a particularly low level – the lowest in the EU, and significantly lower than countries like China, where more than a third of engineers are women.
However, across the world, gender imbalance continues to be a major issue not only in engineering, but in all of the ‘STEM’ subjects: science, technology, engineering and maths.
The STEM gender gap: What it doesn’t mean
One thing that seems clear is that the gender gap is not at all connected to innate ability; girls are not less likely than boys to be good at these subjects.
In fact, The Engineer reports that in the UK girls outperform boys up to GCSE level (exams taken at age 16). But after this, the further on you go, the fewer women you find pursuing these subjects
For instance, women make up just 12% of engineering students at universities in the UK, and just 4% of those taking engineering apprenticeships.
In the US, a recent report from Georgetown University showed that only 16% of engineering majors are female.
This doesn’t mean there are less female students at university overall. In fact, as the World Bank’s 2012 report on Gender Equality and Development shows, more women now attend university than men.
‘Male’ and ‘female’ subjects
However, within individual subjects, there are still major gender imbalances – and engineering seems to be the most extreme case.
In all 97 of the countries included in the World Bank report, the engineering, manufacturing and construction category is dominated by men.
Agriculture, sciences and services are also typically more male-dominated domains.
On the other hand, in 84% of countries assessed, women dominate the education sector, and in 82% of countries there are more women in health and welfare.
Arts and humanities are also more likely to be dominated by women, while relatively gender-neutral fields include social sciences, business and law.
The report summarizes: “Significant and persistent gaps remain in the fields of study that women and men choose as part of their formal education, and the patterns of these choices are very similar in rich and poor countries.”
The STEM gender gap: Why does it exist?
The World Bank report suggests a number of possible causes for these gender imbalances, including:
“stereotypes within the education system, norms governing gender roles in the household that constrain a woman’s choice of occupation, and employers’ attitudes toward family formation and childbearing.”
In short, progress in reducing gender gaps in some subjects has been slow because there are multiple barriers to change.
In order to achieve more equal numbers of male and female students, it is necessary for social norms to evolve, employers’ attitudes to change, and also for the education system to move away from gender stereotyping.