A new study published by the UCD Centre for Economic Research has shown that the subjects female students choose in secondary school will greatly influence whether or not they go on to study STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) subjects in university. The study, carried out on secondary school students from 2015-17 found that the decision to enter STEM fields is made years before students are asked to fill in their CAO forms. Currently women make up only approximately 25% of all STEM jobs in Ireland. This is not an issue that is specific to Ireland – nearly every country exhibits a gap in the number of men and women working in such areas.

There is no science that shows that men and women’s brains operate any differently when it comes to issues such as mathematical capacity, suggesting that the factors at play are social and societal as opposed to biological.

Boys are up to three times as likely to study more mathematically oriented subjects such as applied maths, economics and physics, whereas girls tend to opt for subjects such as languages, art, music or home economics. The study also found that there exists a substantial gap between the number of female students who choose practical subjects, with less than 5% of girls taking subjects such as engineering and construction.

Female students tend to underperform in STEM subjects in the Leaving Certificate, despite outperforming boys on average. This gap narrows when only students who attend schools in affluent areas are considered.

The study suggests that the differences in the availability of subjects on offer in boys and girls schools may play a significant role in determining whether or not female students will go on to pursue STEM courses at third level. This disparity can also be seen in mixed schools however, with 23% of boys versus 6% of girls opting to take physics in mixed schools. The authors suggest that a variety of factors, including “underlying preferences for STEM-type subjects, the influence of teachers, peers, or parents … may reflect comparative advantage with students of each gender choosing subjects in which they believe they will do well.”

The definition of “STEM” may also explain why the gap is so large – nursing for example is not included in what constitutes a STEM subject. The study noted that if it did, the gender gap would be substantially smaller. This raises larger questions as to why traditionally female professions such as nurse and midwife do not fall under the STEM categorization.

These findings will have an impact in the way that the government is attempting to bridge the gap in STEM fields, suggesting that any policy aimed at removing the gap must begin far earlier in the academic timeline. The study also mentions that “expectations of future discrimination” may also play a role in why female students tend not to opt for STEM subjects in university. These fields are male dominated, which may also serve as a disincentive for women to opt for them, resulting in a self-reinforcing system that is heavily biased towards men.

The announcement last year of the creation of female only posts in Irish universities was in part motivated by the desire to bridge this gap in STEM fields. Similar posts exist in other countries, notably the Netherlands, where it has been a success. However, this may in fact do little to help the underlying issue, which this study demonstrates has its roots much further back. It doesn’t go as far as outline any sort of policy agenda on how to tackle the issue, but others have. Other studies have shown that female students perform much better in STEM subjects when their teacher is a woman with a maths background. Others have pointed to media representation as being a factor that plays in to the underlying bias that works against women.

The Department of Education has said that increasing the number of women in STEM fields is a key priority, and there are groups established that are focused on reaching female students at second level that aim to do just that. The rise in the number of female students studying STEM at third level is increasingly slowly, with a 4% increase reported since 2016. Larger structural changes need to be made to fully close this gap, such as increasing the availability of STEM subjects on offer at girls schools. As of yet, the government has proposed little in the way of legislation or funding to make this a reality.

In August 2018, Minister of State for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor, announced that she would pledge future funding for third level institutes, that would be tied in to gender equality targets for each individual institute.