Girls in STEM: the facts behind the gap and how to change it

Girls in STEM Programs

There’s a gender gap worldwide in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) workforce. Although the numbers and percentages vary by country, women everywhere are far less likely to pursue an education or a career in a STEM field. Given that women comprise 50 per cent of the global population, there’s a remarkable waste of potential taking place.

In addition, STEM skills are increasingly important in the job market. The Million Women Mentors organization estimates that 71 per cent of all jobs in the United States 2018 will require these skills. If we don’t interest girls in STEM subjects while they’re young, there is a danger that they will be left behind when it comes to career opportunities. For example, there currently is a lack of women mathematicians, female physicists, and women in astronomy. So what can be done?

Girls in Science – What the Numbers Tell Us

Let’s examine some of the data. In Canada, only 31 per cent of university graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields are women, says Statistics Canada. Even more discouraging, female scientists comprised only 21 per cent of the Canadian STEM workforce in 2014.

The United States can’t claim to be leading the way either. American women comprise only 24 per cent of the STEM workforce, and, just as disheartening, 50 per cent of women drop out of STEM positions after 10 years.

Women In STEM

UNESCO, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization, has examined the percentage of women who pursue STEM research careers, and many powerful or populous countries are falling down on the job when it comes to encouraging and empowering women. Only 20 per cent of nations worldwide have achieved gender parity when it comes to having women scientists carry out scientific research.

For example, China, with its massive, growing population, is no shining star; only 35 per cent of its researchers are women. In Japan, with its sophisticated technology, only 15 per cent of researchers are women. However, Malaysia (50 per cent), New Zealand and the Philippines (52 per cent apiece), Thailand (53 per cent), New Zealand and Myanmar (86 per cent) have breached the parity barrier.

In Europe, the United Kingdom can only claim that women hold 38 per cent of the STEM research jobs, while in Sweden, known for many progressive social policies, it’s only 37 per cent. In Russia, women hold only 41 per cent of STEM research jobs. Tiny Monaco, however, can boast that 50 per cent of its researchers are female.

Latin America has four countries that can claim a respectable number of female researchers: Bolivia (62 per cent), Venezuela (56 per cent), Argentina (53 per cent) and Paraguay (52 per cent).

The numbers make it quite clear that there’s work to do in encouraging women to pursue STEM careers. Luckily, a number of organizations and governments are entering the fray, exploring why the problem exists and attempting to rectify it.

Women in Science and Technology

One person who has spoken out about the need for more women in STEM field is Chelsea Clinton, daughter of the former U.S. president. Her family’s Clinton Foundation has funded an initiative called No Ceilings: the Full Participation Project, an effort “to inspire and advance the full participation of girls and women around the world.”

“STEM around the world but acutely here in the U.S. is an area where not only the gap remains but the gap has widened in the last 20 years,” Clinton told TIME magazine.

The Clinton Foundation’s project is “convening global partners to build a data-driven evaluation of the progress girls and women have made and the challenges that remain to chart the path forward to full participation in the 21st century.”

Most efforts to assist women are more narrowly focused on issues such as STEM. At the University of Toronto, for instance, the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering is employing a variety of strategies to recruit more young women into engineering. One initiative is the annual Young Women in Engineering Symposium that brings top female students to campus for workshops on subjects such as sustainable engineering and lectures by renowned researchers, such as University Professor Molly Shoichet, a biomedical engineer, told U of T Engineering News.

“The reason I care [if women go into science] is that we are trying to solve some really big problems, and we cannot rely on just half the population to do that … Women are going to bring a different approach, different creativity and different ideas.”

Women in STEM Careers

Across the ocean in Great Britain, Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) U.K. is on a mission to add one million more women to the STEM workforce. Among its initiatives, the organization consults with businesses about recruiting and retaining women and offers discovery workshops to inspire young women to pursue careers in STEM.

Halfway across the world in India, the robotics education company, Robotix, sponsors Indian Girls Code, a program that inspires girls, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds, to become involved in computer science and technology. The program launched with a series of workshops for students in Grades 7 to 12, teaching them to create computer applications for real world problems.

Each continent has a variety of efforts dedicated to attracting women to STEM careers. Opportunity awaits for women in stem fields.

Are Girls Afraid of Math?

Let’s take a step back into a girl’s childhood and see what’s happening in terms of STEM development. If you’re a female engineer and a mother of daughters, shouldn’t it be reasonable to assume that one or more of them will follow your career path and seek out a career in a STEM field?


Apparently not, say researchers. A study published in the journal PLoS One this year indicates that although math anxiety is lower among teens in the developed world than elsewhere, girls have much higher math anxiety than boys. In a world where math literacy is increasingly more important, this is a troubling discovery.


Researchers from the University of Missouri, the University of California-Irvine and the University of Glasgow in Scotland analyzed data from more than 75,000 15-year-old students in 68 who participated in the Program for International Student Assessment. The researchers anticipated that in countries with more gender equality, the gaps between males and females in both math anxiety and math performance would narrow. The data proved them wrong.

“The patterns were exactly the opposite of what you would predict from social cultural theories of why you find sex-related differences,” said David Geary, a professor of neuroscience and psychological sciences at the University of Missouri and one of the authors of the study, in a statement.

“It’s unfair that half of the population is missing out on interesting work and career opportunities because they are battling unconscious prejudices and stereotypes.”

What the Data Shows About Girls and Their Fear of Math

The data showed that in countries where there was little equality between the sexes, math anxiety was high and math performance was low for both boys and girls. As gender equality improves, so does math performance; math anxiety declines for both sexes. However, girls’ anxiety doesn’t drop nearly as sharply as their male counterparts’ does.

The study results indicate that gender anxiety shows that in 59 per cent of the countries analyzed, gender anxiety differences between the sexes are more than twice the difference of their performance in mathematics. There are apparently more complex reasons for math anxiety than simply living in a society that offers women more freedom.

“When you looked at economically developed countries with good educational systems, you begin to see a gap where girls have more math anxiety than boys, Geary told the Huffington Post. “Even when researchers control for performance, girls “still have more math anxiety than they should.”

Study co-author Gijsbert Stoet, a psychologist from the University of Glasgow, told Science Daily “Policies to attract more girls and women into subjects such as computer science, physics and engineering have largely failed.”

“Gender equality is a key humanistic value in enlightened and developed societies, but our research shows that policy makers cannot rely on it as the sole factor in getting more girls into subjects like physics and computer science. It is fair to say that nobody knows what will actually attract more girls into these subjects. Policies and programs to change the gender balance in non-organic STEM subjects have just not worked.”

Parental Influence on Girls and Math Success

The researchers also found that even in countries with larger numbers of women working in STEM fields, this appeared to have no bearing on the math anxiety felt by teenage girls. However, when they reviewed data from a study that asked students about their parents’ attitudes toward math and another that asked parents about math, the researchers discovered that parents of girls considered math less important.

“Whether that directly contributes to math anxiety gap or is a reflection of that we don’t know,” Geary said in an interview with Quartz. “But it really is the wrong message for girls and women, particularly in a modern economy where everyone needs reasonably good math skills.”

In fact, in these developed countries, parents placed more emphasis on their sons’ development of mathematical skills than their daughters’. Knowing how easily and subtly youngsters are influenced by parental expectations, it is easy to understand where some of the girls’ anxiety may originate.

Damaging Stereotypes for Girls and Math Subjects

Allison Master, Sapna Cheryan and Andrew Meltzoff, three researchers from the University of Washington, believe that negative stereotypes play a large role in driving girls away from STEM fields. Their own research focuses on computer science, rather than on pure mathematics, but their findings might be of assistance to those seeking to understand why girls shy away from STEM subjects.

They showed pictures of two typical computer science classrooms to Seattle-area high school students. The first was stereotypical, decorated with “geeky” science fiction posters. The second defied stereotypes of the computer nerd with art and nature posters. Girls were three times more likely to want to study computer science when they saw the non-stereotypical classroom, while the environments didn’t matter to the boys’ interest.

“We need to redesign classrooms and change the media stories about computer science,” the researchers wrote in the Washington Post. “If we can show a broader picture of who belongs there, we can get more girls willing to give computer science a try.”

It’s certainly worth a try, as are any attempts to educate parents on the importance of math to the future success of both girls and boys. It’s unfair that half of the population is missing out on interesting work and career opportunities because they are battling unconscious prejudices and stereotypes.

Are Girls Discouraged from Math and Science?

Research suggests that the issue of women continuing to be underrepresented in science and mathematics careers in North America may be found as far back as elementary school.

Girls in Science

The data from Statistics Canada Household Survey conducted in 2011 show that only 31 per cent of university graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields are women. Even more discouraging, women comprised only 21 per cent of the Canadian STEM workforce in 2014. This is despite ongoing efforts by universities and colleges to recruit more women to these fields and to spread the word through groups such as Women in Engineering.


To what can we attribute this lack of interest or uptake? In 2010, women, on average, were still paid about 7.5 per cent less than men for STEM jobs, so this might account for part of it. However, a 2015 study done by researchers at the University of Warwick in England and the University of Tel Aviv indicates that school experiences may also have a large impact on a youngster’s success at various subjects and their interest, which ultimately affects career trajectory.

“On the anonymous math test, the girls outscored the boys, but the boys had higher grades on the math tests where the teachers knew the names of the students.”

Gender Bias in Schools

Warwick economist Victor Lavy and Tel Aviv economist Edith Sand studied three groups of Israeli students beginning in Grade 6. The students were given two exams, one graded by teachers who didn’t know their names and the other graded by teachers who did.

On the anonymous math test, the girls outscored the boys, but the boys had higher grades on the math tests where the teachers knew the names of the students. This disparity wasn’t evident in other subjects, such as English. It appears that teachers overestimate the boys’ math skills and underestimate the girls’ prowess.

The researchers followed these students through high school, and it appeared that the way the teachers viewed their students’ youthful abilities had an impact on their later attitude toward math, their performance and subject choices.

In results of national exams that students take in junior high and high school, for example, the boys who had been encouraged as youngsters did much better. The girls who had been discouraged by teachers as youngsters were much less likely to take advanced classes in math.

“These results suggest that teachers’ biased behavior at early stage of schooling have long running implications for occupational choices and earnings at adulthood, because enrolment in advanced courses in math and science in high school is a prerequisite for post-secondary schooling in engineering, computer science and so on,” the authors wrote.

Gender Differences in Mathematics

In a 2003 study, undertaken by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), researchers used OECD tests and surveys to assess math performance by 15-year-olds. It found that girls did worse than boys in math even among high-achievers. They were also much more likely than boys to report that they just weren’t good at math and were less likely to agree that math was one of their better school subjects.

“Gender disparities in performance do not stem from innate differences in aptitude, but rather from students’ attitudes towards learning and their behaviour in school, from how they choose to spend their leisure time, and from the confidence they have,” the report said.

In Britain, the boys outscored the girls in math, but there was a very high correlation between performance on math and science testing and self-confidence about these subjects. When attitude was taken into account, the girls did better than the boys.

Alun Jones, head of the Girls’ School Association in Britain, told the Guardian, “We’re dealing with centuries of gender bias and what people and parents think and say, often without realizing it, does influence children’s expectations of themselves.”

Girls Excelling in Math and Science: Are Girls Getting Enough Encouragement?

These studies are important because a body of research has demonstrated that teachers’ expectations can have a major influence on whether students show talent in a subject.

In a study from 1966, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson chose 20 per cent of students randomly and told their teachers that these youngsters had done extremely well on a test showing intellectual potential.

The impact, called the Pygmalion effect, was that this 20 per cent showed greater IQ gains than those whom the teachers believed were simply average.

If expectations have such a strong impact on performance, math teachers need to be much more conscious of the messages they convey to their students, both consciously and unconsciously. It is important for them to be aware of the potential that girls have to do as well, if not better, in math than boys and to begin to convey this confidence in girls’ abilities in the classroom. Perhaps this will lead to a rise in future female mathematicians.