Young women are still less inclined to choose degrees in science and technology, and this may be caused by outdated gender stereotypes, according to a study published in the journal European Sociological Review.
Even if they have good grades in maths and other science subjects, female school leavers tend not to choose careers in the STEM sector. A study by Benita Combet from the Department of Sociology at the University of Zurich has now shown that socially embedded gender stereotypes — such as men think logically and women are more creative; or men are competitive while women are risk-averse — can have a significant influence in how students chose their subjects.
The problem is old, but researchers have struggled to find the real reason behind these choices. “The problem is that many of these fields of study characteristics are simultaneously present,” said Combet. For example, STEM subjects need a lot of math and can lead to high salaries, but part-time jobs are still rare. The issue is that it’s difficult to untangle which of these parameters is the deciding factor for prospective students.
To address these issues, instead of asking the participants about their interest in real subjects such as mathematics or psychology, Combet showed them hypothetical fields of study with different characteristics. This included personal preferences, such as a job needing analytical thinking, as well as job requirements, such as working part-time or flexible hours. This allowed the author to analyse multiple factors separately. About 1,500 Swiss high school students took part in the survey.
“The male students were influenced by two factors only: their preference for mathematics and materialistic values such as salary and prestige,” said Combet. All other factors seem to be irrelevant for these students. For young women, however, the picture was completely different. Most female students avoided subjects that required analytical thinking and showed a preference for less competitive fields with the possibility of part-time work. Surprisingly, they were still attracted to occupations with high salaries and prestige, just like men.
For Combet, these results show a clear sign of gender stereotyping ingrained in these female students. “Especially with regard to factors such as logical thinking style and technical skills, strong gender stereotypes still exist, which obviously significantly influence the decisions of female high school students,” says Combet. “We should therefore continue to work on challenging and questioning these fixed beliefs.”
Combet suggested that schoolchildren should be given more detailed information about future subject choices and avoid gender stereotyping. “Many of their current perceptions are not accurate. Interpersonal and creative skills are also important in engineering, for example, working in a team to develop new products,” concluded the researcher.
Benita Combet, Women’s aversion to majors that (seemingly) require systemizing skills causes gendered field of study choice, European Sociological Review, 2023;, jcad021, https://doi.org/10.1093/esr/jcad021