Why do girls not pursue careers in maths and science if they’re so good at it?

By Matthias Eck (UNESCO), Justine Sass (UNESCO), Juliane Hencke (IEA), Dirk Hastedt (IEA), and Ana Maria Mejia-Rodriguez (IEA)

In 2017, globally, less than one in four of those studying engineering, manufacturing and construction, or information and communication technology (ICT) were women in over two-thirds of countries. Yet, as yesterday’s GEM 2022 Gender Report showed in detail, recent international results from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) 2019 at grade 8 show that boys’ and girls’ performance in science and mathematics is similar in many countries. What is holding girls back from pursuing these skills in the job market?

To investigate, UNESCO and the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) analyzed the relationship between students’ gender, their confidence and achievement in mathematics and science, and their aspirations to pursue careers in these fields in a special issue of the IEA Compass: Briefs in Education Series.

Using IEA’s TIMSS 2019 data with a sample of 250,000 students, the brief shows that more boys than girls at grade 8 want to have a mathematics- or science-related career. Both girls and boys who have high confidence in mathematics and science are much more likely to want to work in these fields than those with low confidence. In addition, we find that boys want to pursue a job involving mathematics as adults more than girls at the same achievement level. Likewise, boys from low achievement groups are more likely to aspire to a career in this field. There are rather small or no gender differences in the likelihood of wanting to pursue a science-related career depending on achievement levels.

In almost all education systems (87%), boys responded more often than girls that they would like to pursue a job that involves mathematics. The only exceptions were Malaysia, where the proportion of girls was higher, and Finland, Morocco, South Africa, and Turkey, where there were no significant gender differences.

Considering career aspirations in science, the picture is different. In 12 out of 45 education systems (27%), the proportion of boys who indicated wanting to work in a job that involves science is statistically significantly higher than the proportion of girls. The only exceptions were Chile, Ireland, and Lithuania, where the proportion of girls was higher.

Within the group of low achieving mathematics students, boys reported more often than girls (by 9 percentage points) that they wanted to pursue a job involving mathematics. Within the group of high achieving mathematics students, this difference between boys and girls was 11 percentage points.

The brief shows that the aspiration for boys and girls to work in the field of mathematics is strongly associated with confidence in their ability in the subject. Boys could be over-confident in their mathematics skills and girls under-confident. This may lead to fewer well-performing girls entering STEM tertiary education fields. It could also lead boys from the low achiever group not succeeding in their tertiary studies because they may choose fields that are poorly aligned with their capacities. This suggests that addressing the confidence of girls in science and mathematics should continue to be a concern for policy makers.

The brief discusses implications and makes several suggestions on how to best address this concern.

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