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STEM Not for Women?

How gender stereotypes stop women from becoming programmers and engineers


Girls keep hearing, 'Mathematics is not for you!' and 'Engineering requires a male mind!' These archaic prejudices about women lacking the ability to learn science and technology are common both in university and in the workplace. Young women are often discouraged from careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), resulting in fewer young engineers and programmers entering the labour market. A study by Natalia Maloshonok and Irina Shcheglova, research fellows of the HSE Centre of Sociology of Higher Education, examines how and why gender stereotypes can disempower female students, leading to poor academic performance and high dropout rates.

Spoiler: According to the study, more than one in three (35%) young women have been led to believe in men's superior mathematical ability.

Unnatural (Self)-selection

'Male fellow students refuse to take female undergraduates seriously,' recalls physicist Natalya K. who holds a degree from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, a leading Russian university in STEM. ‘Every time you got a top mark for solving a challenging problem, they would grin condescendingly, “You are just lucky.” If you pass an exam successfully, they would make nasty jokes about your “special relationship” with the teacher. And if you confront them and ask why they distrust women's academic ability, they would say something like, “Oh come on, everybody knows it ...”’ According to Natalya, she sometimes got the impression that young women were intentionally discouraged from pursuing careers in STEM.

Natalya K. was an undergraduate more than a decade ago. But how are things now? Are women more confident in STEM-related fields? Are science, technology, engineering and mathematics still considered a 'male realm'?

According to young women – winners of the annual NTI Contest for university undergraduates, there are still too few women in STEM. Galia Eshmagambetova, a contestant from Kazakhstan and an undergraduate at the University of Groningen (Netherlands), recalls having heard since her childhood, 'You should go into the humanities; programming or mathematics are not for you.'  

She believes that society’s attitudes are a major factor leading to the shortage of women in exact sciences. 'At least this has been my own experience in Kazakhstan—I am not sure about Russia. But I can see the overall trend: there are really very few young women [in STEM]. The widespread stereotype is that boys are programmers who play games and are good with computers, but girls are not.'

'This stereotype is indeed very common and often shared by one's inner circle, including parents, friends, teachers and acquaintances,' according to engineer Anna S. holding a degree from Bauman Technical University in Moscow. Anna confirms that this kind of pressure can undermine a woman's confidence in her choice of career—many of her fellow female students dropped out for this reason. 'A couple of times, I seriously considered quitting, because such prejudices also make it extremely difficult for women to pursue an academic career. You are constantly forced to prove that you are not inferior to men.'

De-STEMatisation of Women

Gender segregation, or gender imbalance, with a prevalence of men in STEM careers and university majors, is a situation shared by many countries, including both Russia and the U.S., where three to four times more men than women choose these careers, according to Olga Savinskaya, Elizaveta Zakharova and Tamara Mkhitaryan,  social scientists and authors of the book Women and STEM in Digital Era.

At the same time, STEM is a priority for many countries which struggle with workforce shortages and call for more workers with sufficient skills in this sphere. In late April 2020, the head of Rostrud Mikhail Ivankov stressed that Russian employers had a high unmet demand for engineers.

Russia’s higher education admission targets, which are reflected in the availability of state-subsidised slots in universities, also prioritise STEM-related majors. In the last academic year, 47% of subsidised slots in full-time Bachelor and Specialty university courses were in engineering and another 10% were in natural sciences. 'More than half of the state's subsidies to higher education are spent in these areas of training', Shcheglova and Maloshonok emphasise.

Multiple studies indicate that mixed teams of men and women tend to outperform single-gender teams by a wide margin in engineering projects. Mixed teams tend to come up with better ideas, and research suggests that for a company to be gender-balanced is a competitive advantage.

Prove or Go Away

Nevertheless, the benefits of having more women in STEM careers still seem to require additional proof, which women themselves are expected to provide. Stated commitments to a better gender balance in science and technology often turn out to be mere empty declarations. 'If I ever decide to change careers, many people would take it for granted and never try to change my mind, but not so in the case of a male colleague', comments the physicist Natalya K. 'In my case, they would probably write it off to the difficulty of combining a career in science with having kids. The assumption is that women are more involved in the family, leaving them less time for "proper" science'.

'Even those women who earn a degree in STEM are often too intimidated to pursue a career in technology-related spheres', according to Anna S. As a result, many female graduates of STEM majors end up in occupations unrelated to their training. While biology and chemistry graduates are more likely to remain in the field (and careers in chemistry and biology tend to be fairly gender-balanced), women with degrees in mathematics, physics or engineering often opt for unrelated jobs.

'Often they simply do not see themselves in these professions and feel they can't compete with men,' Shcheglova comments. According to the researcher, the sad end to such stories—women giving up on their university degrees—can be in a large part attributed to gender prejudice in society.

Women's Share

Gender imbalance starts in secondary school, continues through high school and further increases in university, with few female undergraduates choosing science and engineering as majors. The final stage of this negative selection occurs in the workplace.

It is no coincidence that social sciences describe gender inequalities in STEM as cross-cutting. They follow women throughout their educational paths all the way to the labour market.

In Russia, the proportion of female students in STEM-related undergraduate and specialty courses varies from one-quarter to one-third, depending on the area of study. In 2018, according to the Ministry of Education and Science data, women accounted for just 26% of students in Engineering, Technology and Technical Sciences undergraduate courses, 27% in Computer and Information Sciences courses, almost a third (31%) in Mathematics and Mechanics, and 32% in Physics and Astronomy. This data is consistent with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) indicators for Russia: at bachelor's level, just 35% of graduates in STEM are women.

Dr. Jenna Carpenter's lecture 'Engineering: Where are the girls and why aren’t they here?'

Maloshonok and Shcheglova suggest that this imbalance could largely be due to gender stereotypes. In order to test their hypothesis, the researchers analysed data from the Study of Undergraduate Performance (SUPER-test) , an international comparative study of engineering students' educational achievement carried out by HSE in cooperation with Stanford University and others.

SUPER-test Study Process

More than 2,600 first-year undergraduates were surveyed in the autumn of 2015. In the spring of 2017, dropout data was collected on the same students.

The researchers examined data on undergraduates in 17 engineering and computer science majors, including fundamental informatics, applied informatics, mathematics, information systems, software engineering, radio engineering, electronics, laser technology, photonics, and others.

The study used multistage sampling. At stage one, the researchers randomly selected 34 Russian universities, then up to three area majors in each university, and finally up to three study groups in each area.

The proportion of women among first-year undergraduates varied from 7% (optics) to 42% (mathematics and computer science). The percentage of female dropouts in 2017 ranged from 6% (electronics and nanoelectronics) to 40% (mathematics and computer science). 

The dependent variable was student dropout rates based on exam scores in the first three semesters. The data was controlled for gender, area major and its priority for a student, type of class in high school (advanced in physics and mathematics or not), family socioeconomic status, and how selective the university’s enrolment process was (whether preference was given to applicants with high USE scores).

Gender stereotypes were measured by undergraduates’ answers to three questions on whether they believe girls or boys to be more capable in mathematics, and what their teachers' and fellow students' opinions were on the matter. 

Dropout Paradox

Although some internationally published papers suggest that women are less likely to persist in STEM field majors, while male gender is a predictor of students' intention to persist in the computer science major beyond the introductory course, HSE researchers found the opposite to be true, namely that young men were more likely than young women to drop out from STEM majors, e.g. by 7% (19% versus 12% for women) for engineering and by 5% (22% versus 17%) for computer science.

This may reflect an important distinction between universities in Russia and other countries in terms of their tuition fee systems. In Russia, most students' tuition fees are subsidised by the state, and the most common reason for student dropout is involuntary expulsion for academic failure. In contrast, many students in the U.S. pay for their own tuition, and a significant proportion of those who drop out do so voluntarily. 

'The fact that their tuition is subsidised can be a strong incentive for young women to complete their major even if they are dissatisfied with their training and experience as students,' the researchers conclude.

Risk propensity—believed to be higher in young men—may be another factor explaining the gender-based differences in student dropout rates. It has been shown that risk-prone students are more likely to drop out.

It follows from the above that on average, female undergraduates in STEM majors perform better academically than their male counterparts and are more likely to complete their studies. But is it possible to reduce the dropout rates of female students even further? What is the main reason behind their choice to leave: being overwhelmed by the curriculum or something else?

Sadly, gender stereotypes seem to be at play here as well. Not only do they affect young women's interest in exact sciences and the choice of career in STEM, but even more importantly, they can undermine female students' confidence in their ability to compete successfully with men.

Passing through Filters

Many female undergraduates have heard time and again that their mathematical ability is less than that of their male counterparts, often undermining the women's motivation to persist towards a degree in related fields. 'For some young women, this can lead to dropout or to giving up on their chosen career following graduation,' according to the researchers.

'Dropout risks increase for girls who believe that boys have better mathematical ability, and 35% of female students in our sample share this belief,' Shcheglova comments. Her co-author Maloshonok confirms that 'this group of female undergraduates are 57% more likely to drop out than male students.' 

Despite research findings which indicate women's better performance in STEM, 'These arguments are usually ignored,' according to the engineer Anna S. 'Even when you are good academically, others may be able to convince you before your final year in university that succeeding in “men's domain” is beyond your ability. Over time, many women decide that they are likely to hit the glass ceiling there anyway, and may be better off elsewhere.'

But where does this 'women cannot succeed at STEM' stereotype come from? In fact, no gender difference in the quality of publications has been found in existing scientific papers authored by men and women worldwide. 'However, for some reason, it is widely believed that ladies do not have a brain for mathematics,' says the physicist Natalya. 'I remember a male fellow-student saying that women were not able to think rationally and did not have the "mathematical clarity of mind." It was the perfect demotivator.' Natalya admits having doubts about her own abilities after hearing that. 

The researchers compare these gender stereotypes to a tough filter that far from all women are able to pass. Needless to say, any stereotypes about women's lack of ability in mathematics are totally untrue. 

Discouraged at School

According to neuroscience, both genders are born with the same biological ability for mathematical cognition. As they grow, boys and girls engage the same neural system during mathematics development. Therefore, it is more appropriate to discuss similarities rather than differences in the way children of both gender process mathematics. Indeed, girls tend to score higher marks in mathematics than boys in grade five in Russia, and no gender difference in academic performance is observed in grades eight and eleven. 

However, things do change in senior grades. Girls tend to lose interest in mathematics and motivation for studying it. Both boys and girls tend to show about the same level of interest in mathematics in grade eight, but by grade nine, many girls drift away from this subject. 

There can be many reasons, such as other interests, complexity of assignments, unhelpful teachers or just being tired of school – or perhaps the reputation of this discipline as 'boring'. Yet another factor which can explain why girls are discouraged from studying mathematics is that many people in Russia do not find it useful or practical, while being useful to society is a major factor in young girls' choice of career.

Code Your Own Way / Code like a girl

But more importantly, for some reason, female students in senior grades tend to underestimate their mathematical abilities. According to a study by HSE researcher Olga Savinskaya, only 10% of Russian female students in senior grades assess their competence in mathematics as high, compared to 38% of boys. Over time, self-assessment of their abilities goes further downward for girls and upward for boys. However, back in grade five, the share of those who self-assess their competence as high is almost equal at 17% for girls and 20% for boys.

This situation is not unique to Russia. The ABC of Gender Equality in Education: Aptitude, Behaviour, Confidence, an international study carried out as part of PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), confirmed young girls' paradoxical lack of confidence in their own mathematical abilities. 

Students were asked to solve various problems to determine their mathematical self-efficacy. The contrast between genders was particularly pronounced in applied mathematical tasks: 67% of boys and only 44% of girls reported feeling confident about calculating the petrol consumption rate of a car, and 75% of girls, compared to 84% of boys, reported feeling confident about calculating how much cheaper a TV would be after a discount . 

Distorted Lenses of Gender

According to the authors, the gender bias that causes women's progressive loss of confidence in their mathematical ability can be compared to a penetrating radiation. 

'The social institutions of our world—workplace, family, school, politics—are also gendered institutions, sites where the dominant definitions are reinforced and reproduced, and where "deviants" are disciplined’, wrote the American sociologist Michael Kimmel. Anything that does not fit society’s stereotypes about femininity, such as women's aptitude for mathematics, is suppressed.

Even preschool education has its own hidden curriculum: kindergarten teachers transmit gender norms by expecting boys to be active and girls to be obedient. Boys are encouraged to express themselves and girls are praised for being attentive and studious. To be feminine means to take an interest in music, dance and languages but not in mathematics.

Sociocultural stereotypes about femininity and masculinity or, to quote the American psychologist Sandra Bem, the lenses of gender, are among the most powerful and attribute different behaviours and abilities to women and to men.

In this context, it comes as no surprise that women who pursue STEM majors are likely to have their abilities underestimated. The negative stereotype often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy due to what is called stereotype threat. According to Shcheglova and Maloshonok, it appears to be a major factor underlying female students' dropout from STEM majors.

Trapped in Stereotype

Discrimination against certain groups (women, minorities, lower classes, etc.) is often fuelled by negative stereotypes about their character, cognitive abilities and propensity to certain behaviours, among others. Being continuously exposed to this type of judgment, members of such groups, on one hand, can feel hurt and offended, yet on the other hand, they do not want to confirm negative stereotypes about them. 

This can results in heightened anxiety and tension, causing the person to identify with the imaginary negative characteristics attributed to their group. This adversely affects their performance, resulting in a self-fulfilling prophecy, which is another name for stereotype threat.

Stereotype threat can affect both intellectual and athletic performance. According to Shcheglova, young women who often hear about women's alleged inaptitude for mathematics can feel anxious not to confirm the stereotype.

This anxiety inhibits their active participation in class. Female students dread being called to the front of the class to solve mathematical problems and avoid difficult assignments assuming these to be beyond their ability.  'Such attitudes hinder learning and undermine academic success', explains Maloshonok.

According to the researchers, the myth of male superiority in mathematics causes so much pressure on some women in STEM that they struggle with assignments, perform below their ability and eventually drop out.

Warm Atmosphere

The HSE social scientists did not stop with theoretical analysis but went further and suggested approaches that could help women gain a foothold in mathematics, science and engineering, while challenging gender stereotypes. 'In our unpublished study, we emphasise the value of role models—women with successful careers in STEM—for female students,' says Shcheglova. 'The opposite is also true: too few female teachers in STEM courses increase the likelihood of women dropping out.'

How Did Tech Become So Male-Dominated?

According to the authors, special interventions are needed to engage young women in STEM and help them build self-confidence. Examples include seminars and other academic events with guest speakers—successful women in STEM-related careers who could act as inspiring role models by demonstrating their achievement in STEM.

Female students can also benefit from smaller study groups, as class size and gender ratio are important for countering stereotypes. 'Young women tend to be more involved when they study in small groups,' Maloshonok explains. 'Some studies also suggest that female students perform better in all-girl classes compared to mixed groups.'

In addition to this, it is essential to use evidence to challenge stereotypes about gender-based differences in mathematics or tech ability, the researchers stress. This can increase women's participation in STEM and contribute to its advancement.

Study authors:
Natalia Maloshonok, Director, Centre of Sociology of Higher Education, HSE Institute of Education
Irina Shcheglova, Junior Research Fellow, Centre of Sociology of Higher Education, HSE Institute of Education
Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, July 21