William Watson: It’s not that women aren’t interested in STEM; it’s that men aren’t interested in non-STEM subjects
Students walk through a park at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario.
October 13, 2017
A major concern of education policy-makers is the gender gap that (in Ontario) has only 30.3 per cent of women university undergraduates taking science, technology, engineering and mathematics (or “STEM”) programs while 42.5 per cent of men do. Because STEM jobs typically pay better, you might think this gap contributes to the widely-decried salary gap between men and women who work full time.
Except it turns out there really isn’t a STEM gap. Not in Ontario, certainly, but more than likely not in most other jurisdictions, either. Women who come out of high school with the math and science prerequisites for STEM programs are only slightly less likely than men to go into such programs. And women are only slightly less likely to get STEM prep in high school, with the result that women are essentially half (49 per cent, to be exact) of the STEM students in university.
So where’s the gap? And should we mind the gap (if we do find one)?
There is in fact a gap. But it may be more statistical artefact than social problem
There is in fact a gap. But it may be more statistical artefact than social problem. The numbers quoted so far are correct: Despite women filling half of STEM spaces at university a markedly lower share of women are in such programs than is true for men. How can that be? The answer is that among those high-school students who don’t get STEM prep, many more women than men nevertheless go on to university.
All this, though not necessarily the conclusions I draw from it, comes from a recent study by economists David Card of the University of California (Berkeley) and Abigail Payne, formerly of McMaster now of the University of Melbourne. They looked at the university programs and high-school preparation of 400,000 entrants to Ontario universities from 2005 to 2012, as well as detailed data on the courses and grades of students who were in Grade 9 in 2005-6 as they worked their way to high school graduation. (You’ve got to hope this very big data was well encrypted!)
In total in Ontario, 44 per cent of women go to university versus only 32 per cent of males. As a result, fully 57.5 per cent of undergraduate students are now female. But, exaggerating drastically to make a point, if there are only three groups of students—women in STEM, women in non-STEM, and men in STEM — then in such a world it’s simple arithmetic that a smaller percentage of women will be in STEM than men. In reality, of course, there actually are male undergraduates who don’t prepare for or take STEM programs, but disproportionate numbers of non-STEM men just don’t go to university.
It is not clear there is a problem here
It’s not clear there is a problem here. Students are free to choose their own programs. Schools can provide good information for them about their choices in terms of university and employment. But if there is a problem, it’s not that women aren’t interested in STEM; it’s that men aren’t interested in poetry — or languages or philosophy or art or all the other non-STEM subjects.
Among Card and Payne’s other results:
There’s only a small difference in STEM preparation between female and male high-school graduates: 14.5 per cent versus 15.3 per cent.
High-school students who are STEM-prepped both do go on to university and do take STEM programs and on both scores the differences between men and women are minimal.
Males and females tend to prep for different STEM programs
Males and females tend to prep for different STEM programs. Females are more likely than males to take biology in high school (81.5 per cent versus 51.7) while males are more likely to take physics (62.6 per cent versus 31.9). Card and Payne count nursing as a STEM program, both because it has typical STEM math and science prerequisites and because health sciences workers make STEM-level salaries after graduation.
Girls have slightly higher high-school marks overall though more so in non-STEM subjects, so the fact that many girls do opt for non-STEM university programs may reflect comparative advantage rather than anything else.
Probably the most policy-relevant observation Card and Payne’s study points to is that lots of high-school students, especially boys, effectively opt out of both STEM and university itself by choosing Grade 9 courses that don’t lead to the Grade 10, 11 and 12 courses that would let them into university STEM programs. Ontario’s schools might want to let students delay their decisions by prolonging their math and science prep by a year or two and by giving them good information — if it exists or can be generated — about which courses tend to lead to which kinds of jobs. If they can make that information available in a way that can grab students’ attention, i.e., via a cell phone app, that would probably work best.