The impact of gender on young people’s STEM choices

By Heather King - June 2011


Buccheri, G., Gürber, N.A. & Brühwiler, C. (2011). The impact of gender on interest in science topics and the choice of scientific and technical vocations. International Journal of Science Education, 33(1), 159–178.

This study presents an interesting cross-national analysis of young people’s preferences, expectations, and perceptions of ability regarding STEM subjects. It finds that gender plays a significant role in students’ choices regarding STEM study and careers on the basis of comparison of students from four countries using the data from PISA, an international cross-comparison study. This study provides ISE educators with an insight into young people’s thinking regarding STEM. It also suggests possible strategies that may be implemented by ISE initiatives for greater gender equity in STEM.

Only high performers in science or math were included in the study, which compares student data from Korea, Finland, Australia, and Switzerland. These four countries represent very different types of educational systems – for example, Korea as a north Asian country is characterized by an authoritative educational style; and Australia as an Anglo-Saxon country (like the US and Canada) is noted for its intensive training and support, especially in early childhood. The focus of the analysis was on PISA questions about students’ interests in science and what they expected their job or vocation to be at age 30. The particular questions guiding the analysis were:

• Is there a gender difference among highly competent students with regard to their interests in specific science subjects? 

• Are there differences between the expected careers of highly competent male and highly competent female students? 

• Is there a correlation between the interest in a STEM subject and the choice of a career? 

• For highly competent students, how do students’ gender and their stated interests in different STEM subjects relate to their anticipated career at age 30?

This study presents a detailed analysis of the data, including national differences in subject preferences. However, perhaps the most significant finding with international relevance is that, across all four education systems, interest only partly compensates for the gender impact on vocational choices in STEM. In other words, the crucial determinant of vocational choices in STEM is gender. Career choices in the STEM disciplines tend to follow this pattern: women choose medical careers by preference and men choose engineering and computer sciences.

Whilst many may feel that this widespread gender inequity is a cause of concern, the researchers in the study point to the finding that the gender impact does differ in strength between countries studied. This suggests that there can be the possibility of closing the gender gap. Referring to the wider literature, the researchers propose several possibilities for this assertion. First, they suggest that emphasizing the utility or practical use of the subject matter may motivate female students more, particularly with reference to the physical sciences.

Second, a greater exposure to an array of experiences in the sciences may not only help students appreciate the subjects’ utility, but also provide them with greater interest and self-belief in their ability to engage with the subject.

Third, the researchers suggest that the teaching of concepts in the physical sciences must be done with reference to more female-preferred contexts such as health and well-being: for example, how an understanding of physical processes such as submolecular structures have led to medical developments in the understanding of disease. And finally, they argue that providing learners with [female] role models and opportunities to observe scientific practices in situ, would have an impact on students’ [particularly girls’] attitudes towards science.

In sum, this study presents the data and discussion to justify the efforts by many ISE practitioners to enhance young people’s, and especially girls’, engagement in science.