Study: Gender differences in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and computer science programs at university

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Young women who attend university are less likely than young men to choose a program in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and computer science (STEM), regardless of mathematical ability in high school.

Although they represented the majority of university graduates in 2011, women accounted for 39% of all STEM university graduates aged 25 to 34.

In all non-STEM fields of study, women accounted for 66% of all university graduates aged 25 to 34, and approximately 80% of graduates in health and education-related programs.

Even when they chose to pursue STEM degrees, young women were concentrated in science and technology rather than in other STEM disciplines. In 2011, they represented 59% of all graduates aged 25 to 34 in science and technology, compared with 23% among graduates in engineering, and 30% among graduates in mathematics and computer science.

Consequently, 39% of the 132,500 women aged 25 to 34 with a STEM degree had a specialization in engineering, mathematics or computer science, compared with 72% of the 206,600 men of the same age with a STEM degree.

Fewer women choosing STEM, even among those who had higher PISA scores

The better students perform academically in their teenage years, the more likely they are to choose a STEM program at university.

However, if women are less likely to choose a STEM program when they go to university, it is not because of differences in high school academic performance.

One standard measure of academic performance is the internationally recognized Programme for International Student Assessment, generally known by its acronym PISA. The PISA tests are administered periodically to a sample of students aged 15 to gauge their reading, science and mathematical ability.

Among women who attended university and who had better mathematics PISA scores at age 15 — defined as those who were in the top three levels of PISA scores (out of six) — 23% chose a STEM program.

In comparison, 46% of men who attended university and had higher mathematics PISA scores at age 15 chose a STEM program. Participation in STEM university programs was also relatively higher among boys in the three lowest categories of mathematics PISA scores at 39%, compared with 15% among girls.

Boys with lower PISA scores were therefore more likely to choose a STEM program, when going to university, than girls with higher PISA scores.

In fact, among girls who were in the top three categories of PISA scores, social science programs were first chosen by 48% of those who eventually went to university.

Conversely, the proportion of boys with higher and lower PISA scores who chose a program in social sciences was just over 30%.

Girls with higher mathematics marks also less likely to choose a STEM program

As was the case with PISA scores, boys with lower mathematics marks in high school were, in fact, more likely than girls with higher marks to choose a STEM program when going to university.

For example, 52% of boys who had mathematics marks in the 80% to 89% range in high school chose a STEM program, compared with 22% of girls in the same category and 41% of girls who had marks in the 90% to 100% range.

In comparison, 61% of boys with mathematics marks in the 90% to 100% range in high school chose a STEM program at university.

Similar results were found with self-perceived measures of mathematical ability in high school. Among university-bound students who considered their mathematics skills as "excellent", 66% of males chose a STEM program compared with 47% of females. Among those who considered their mathematical abilities as "good", 36% of males and 15% of females chose a STEM program.

These gender differences remained even when measures of mathematical abilities in high school were considered together with other variables, including parental influence, reading scores and other demographic variables.

STEM degrees in engineering leading to better labour market outcomes among young graduates

The labour market conditions of young STEM graduates aged 25 to 34 varied across gender, type of program and indicators of labour market performance.

Generally, young STEM graduates in engineering had lower unemployment rates, lower rates of skills mismatch, and higher earnings than other categories of STEM graduates and non-STEM graduates.

In part because they were concentrated in engineering, men with a STEM degree had better labour market outcomes than their non-STEM counterparts. For example, employed men with a STEM degree who worked full-time, full-year earned a median of $62,000 in 2010, compared with $56,000 among non-STEM graduates.

The labour market outcomes of university-educated women with a STEM degree, who were more concentrated in science and technology, were more similar to those who earned a university degree outside of STEM.

Note to readers

In this release, the results about young science, technology, engineering, mathematics and computer science graduates aged 25 to 34 come from the 2011 National Household Survey (NHS). The NHS collected information on the respondents' field of study, along with a number of other social and economic characteristics.

The relationship between mathematical ability in high school and program choice at university was studied with longitudinal data from the Youth in Transition Survey and the Programme for International Student Assessment. In this survey, students were surveyed in 2000 when they were 15, and were surveyed again every two years until they were 25, in 2010.

Definitions, data sources and methods: survey numbers survey number4435, survey number5060 and survey number5178.

The article "Gender differences in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and computer science (STEM) programs at university" in Insights on Canadian Society (Catalogue number75-006-X) is now available. A longer study with more detailed results from the Youth in Transition Survey and the Programme for International Student Assessment, titled "Ability in Mathematics and Science at Age 15 and Program Choice in University: Differences by Gender" is also available in the Culture, Tourism and the Centre for Education Statistics: Research Papers (Catalogue number81-595-M). From the Browse by key resource module of our website, choose Publications.

For more information, contact us (toll-free 1-800-263-1136; 514-283-8300; infostats@statcan.gc.ca).

To enquire about the concepts, methods or data quality of this release, contact Darcy Hango (613-951-7082; darcy.hango@statcan.gc.ca), Culture, Tourism and Centre for Education Statistics Division.

For more information on Insights on Canadian Society, contact Sébastien LaRochelle-Côté (613-951-0803; sebastien.larochelle-cote@statcan.gc.ca), Labour Statistics Division.