STEM and the gender pay gap

Girls’ choices not to take STEM subjects are likely to affect the gender pay gap. So what can we do about it?

Education STEM


A lack of women in STEM is a clear driver of the gender pay gap and one that is likely to feature increasingly despite intense efforts to counter it.

A study published last week by the Nuffield Foundation looked at how university and subject choice was affected by class and gender. It found that disadvantaged students with the same level of attainment were more likely to enrol in ‘lower quality’ courses which result in lower earnings and that women were more likely to attend courses that led to lower paid jobs.

The report says: “While women enrol in courses that are as academically prestigious as men, they are more likely to attend courses which command lower average earnings. This is, in large part, driven by the different subjects studied by men and women at university. These findings have important implications for the gender pay gap.”

Confidence issues

We know that women are more likely to choose non-STEM subjects. The report shows that most of the gender gap can be accounted for by the subject studied at university. However, high-attaining women still tend to choose lower ranked institutions in terms of earnings potential compared to high-attaining men. This is an interesting area which is worthy of further exploration. Is that to do with confidence issues, for instance? Do women underestimate their potential and choose their university accordingly?

The report’s recommendations with regard to gender include the need to target information about earnings based on university and degree subject at female students so they understand how their choices might affect their future income.  This might include a range of filters such as degree subject preference (where students would pick their preferred subject and would be offered suggested related matched courses). That may not, of course, affect their choice, but it will at least mean that it is an informed one.

This is, of course, not the silver bullet for women and STEM, given it is such a complex issue. The reasons girls don’t choose STEM subjects past GCSE are often rooted in early attitudes to them.

Anecdotal evidence

Anecdotal evidence is not the best to go on, but I have three daughters, none of whom like STEM subjects at all. I have tried to encourage them, given the earnings gap but also in a bid to counter stereotypes, but I admit that my own bent is for arts subjects. I fear I may have given off if not anti-STEM messages at the very least subliminal pro-arts ones. Parents perhaps have an undue influence on their children’s attitudes to certain subjects, so targeting them is important. It’s not just attitudes though. Bias seeps out in every decision taken, for instance, the choice of events you go to and so forth. I have taken the kids to science museums and the like, but not nearly as much as to the cinema, theatre and arts-related events.

Nevertheless, my oldest daughter is interested in philosophy, which has a significant scientific input, particularly when it comes to logic which she is keen to study. My third daughter is growing in confidence in maths [which may eventually affect her attitude to the subject] and has always been extremely organised. My second daughter, by comparison, does not really do logic, is very visual and struggles with the kind of abstract concepts that seem to abound in maths and some branches of science.

She only passed maths and science for the very first time in her GCSE exams. However, she was the one most into experimentation of all kinds in her early years, so much so that we called her the mad professor. It’s a stereotype, which, of course, betrays a bias, but it takes all kinds of thinkers to excel in science and it takes good teachers who can reach students who may not be the ‘traditional scientists’. Perhaps our stereotyped divisions between arts and science are part of the problem. After all, hypotheses come from somewhere. Science is rooted in society.

Perhaps the fusion between ideas and evidence in science could be emphasised more in order to appeal to those who, like my second daughter, are interested in asking questions that are not perhaps the typical ones. I recall her teacher asking her what she was thinking when she was around seven and staring out the window. “I was thinking that if you were a giant strawberry sitting on the end of my thumb, would I eat you,” she replied. It may not be chemistry, but it shows a willingness to ask interesting questions, which surely is the start of all scientific enquiry.

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