Fixing the gender gap in STEM starts in high school

By Prof A. Abigail Payne, University of Melbourne and Prof David Card, University of California, Berkeley

STEM is core to solving some of the most pressing issues our world is facing. But women are under-represented.

How do we address climate change? How do we use of artificial intelligence? What about autonomous vehicles?

These are big, meaty problems that we need think about. And to address them, we need a range of perspectives – from different cultures and particularly from women.

Each of these problems relates to STEM, an acronym which stands for science, technology, engineering and maths. We need more people working in STEM in general, but women are particularly underrepresented in the field. STEM is core to the innovation we’ll need to solve the most pressing problems facing our world.

Worldwide, it is estimated that less than a third of researchers are women.  But the problem occurs right through the career pipeline, from university to joining the workforce.

In Australia, less than 15% of students who complete university engineering degrees are women. There are more women in maths (37%) and physics and astronomy (29%), but still significantly fewer than men. There is a similar gap across the OECD, despite more women than men attending university overall (which is a separate problem in itself).

This gap carries through to the workplace, where less than 17% of qualified STEM workers are women.

Where does this gap come from? One of the challenges of gender gaps like that in STEM is that they can begin any time over a woman’s lifetime, from birth to the workplace. Our research, based on Canadian data, investigates the link between what students study in high school and what they go on to study in university. We have found that much of it comes down to being “STEM ready”.


Entry-level jobs in STEM pay more on average than those in non-STEM fields.

In Australia, women earn on average 14% less than men each week. This is in large part due to women working fewer hours and working in lower-income industries. More women in higher-paying STEM jobs is one way we can begin to close the gender pay gap.

Entry-level jobs in STEM, such as engineering, pay more on average than those in non-STEM fields.

Why do some women avoid STEM? There are likely to be several reasons. There are likely to cultural pressures keeping women out of STEM, parental attitudes, or simply women’s choices. It is also likely in part due to structures in our workplaces and universities.

In a study based on Canadian data, we focused on the transition from high school to university. We looked at a few different things.

The first was university enrolments. Part of the puzzle of women in STEM is that more women enrol into university than men. But, when it comes to STEM subjects, fewer women than men enrol – approximately a 15-percentage-point gap.

We study what’s driving this gap. We found only about 5 percentage points are explained by admissions – women who would qualify for those programs but don’t apply. The majority of the gap is explained by fewer women being “STEM ready”.

STEM readiness refers to the subjects students study in high school that would prepare them for STEM courses at university, such as math, biology, chemistry and physics. Our research shows that the lack of women doing STEM at university is largely explained by those women not taking STEM subjects in high school.

The STEM gap at university is largely explained by fewer female students studying STEM subjects in high school.


This research suggests we need to look carefully at what’s happening in high school. We found that female students do take maths and science in the second-last year of high school – but they don’t continue in the last year, preparing them for university.

There could be a number of explanations. Could careers counsellors, teachers, and parents play a bigger role? Or could it be because female students are good at lots of different subjects – including humanities and STEM – and are choosing not to do STEM? Not choosing STEM could have longer-term implications for a female student’s career – including pay – and perhaps they are making shorter-term decisions.

One thing we know it is not is that women are less smart, or have less aptitude for STEM. Our research shows that female students achieve equal grades in STEM as male students in high school.

Whatever the cause, there are three key drivers for addressing the gender gap in STEM: culture, leadership and education. We hope our research will encourage others to continue research into this problem, and encourage policy-makers and others in the field to trial and test ideas to address the gap in high school.

Listen to the Women are the Business podcast for more insights on women's working lives - linking cutting edge research and real life experience to explain the hurdles they face. Available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts now.