School subjects strongly influence whether girls study Stem at college

Study finds that 40% of boys are applying for Stem on CAO form, compared to 19% of girls

Fewer girls than boys are choosing to study Stem subjects in college due to the choices they make at Leaving Cert level, new research has shown.

The Understanding Gender Differences in STEM study, published by the UCD centre for economic research, reveals that the subjects female students choose to study during the Leaving Cert cycle strongly influence whether or not they will go on to study courses in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) at third level.

Even two years before college entry, students are making decisions that impact whether or not they go on to study Stem, said the authors of the report.

They are calling on the Government to intervene at an earlier stage in encouraging women to pursue careers in engineering and technology.

The research was carried out using data from the Central Admissions Office (CAO) and included all students aged 16-20 who did their Leaving Cert and applied for degree courses between 2015 and 207.

At Leaving Cert level, boys were found to be three times more likely to study physics and applied maths, while girls were more likely to study chemistry and biology.

Less than 5 per cent of girls studied more practical subjects such as engineering, building construction, design graphics and technology. These divides also existed across mixed-gender schools, suggesting that the availability of certain subjects does not play a strong role in whether or not students study Stem at college.

The study warns of a significant gender difference in CAO applications for Stem courses at third level, with more than 40 per cent of boys applying for Stem courses compared to about 19 per cent of girls.

Large gap

This large gap appears to be driven by boys opting for engineering and technology, with girls slightly more likely to choose science and mathematics.

While there was no gap found in science, the report notes a “substantial” gender gap in engineering and technology courses at third level. It found that students’ overall academic achievement at Leaving Cert played a “negligible role” in whether or not they go on to study Stem subjects.

Gender gaps were found to be smaller among high-achieving students and for students who go to school in more affluent areas.

The report notes that while subject choices explain most of the gender gap in engineering, they do not explain the gender gap in technology, “suggesting different policies may be required to tackle the gender gap in technology than in engineering”.

The gender gap becomes much smaller once nursing is included as one of the Stem subjects.

Women were more than twice as likely than men to list courses in education on their CAO forms, and more than four times as likely to list health/welfare courses.

In order to reduce the Stem gender gap at third level, the study recommends that interventions are made when students are choosing their Leaving Cert subjects rather than two years later when they are deciding what to study at college.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education said the promotion of increased participation of all students, with a particular focus on female students, in Stem subjects was a “key priority”.

Third-level entrants

She underlined that the number of female third-level entrants studying engineering, manufacturing and construction rose by 4 per cent between 2016-2018.

A recent report from the department also found the gender gap at third level was “heavily influenced” by subject choices, and as a result a review of career guidance will shortly be submitted.

“The purpose of the review is to ensure that we are providing high quality, relevant career guidance information to students from post-primary level up to further and higher education,” said the spokeswoman.

She said the department was also “scoping out potential means” of improving the range of Stem subjects offered by post-primary schools and planning to undertake research on the key influencers on subject and career choice.

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak is an Irish Times reporter and cohost of the In the News podcast