Across the world, the numbers of women going to university is increasing

In many countries, more women are actually studying for degrees than man.

However, what is true across the board is that women are less likely to study STEM subjects than men. In only 3 countries are half of engineering graduates female, and all the other countries have a long way to go before they catch up.

In Pakistan, of all the children who are not in school, 57% of these children are girls. Sadly, girls face discrimination when it comes to getting an education, and then face further discrimination even when they are in education. Later on in life, fewer women receive PhDs than men, and in Pakistan women are seriously underrepresented in STEM careers.

Why are there so few women in STEM?

A number of factors play into why fewer women go into STEM careers, such as:

  • Negative stereotypes
  • Social and peer pressure
  • Lack of encouragement
  • Perceived marginalisation of women who work in STEM fields

These factors work separately and together to strongly discourage women from even considering STEM subjects seriously as a career.

Popular theories

The first theory of why women don’t choose STEM subjects is known as ‘Rational Choice’ theory. Put simply, when girls weigh up whether it makes sense to invest in STEM subjects in terms of both time and effort, they don’t perceive it to be a good choice. This is because they might anticipate failure down the line, or that it’s not worth pursuing for both financial and social reasons.

Another possibility is ‘Gender Socialisation Theory’ which suggests that as a result of a lifetime of conditioning, girls want to stay within gendered norms. This can be because of everything from how they have been brought up, to how society sees women, interactions they have had, corrections, ridicule and more. Put together, this leads women to believe STEM subjects are not for them, and could lead to being ostracised.

A similar theory is the ‘Looking Glass Self’ theory which is based on the way we see ourselves being different to how others see us. While a girl might believe she is not good at these subjects, that is not necessarily true. Girls may believe other people perceive them as less able, and then believe this themselves.

The final theory is the ‘Leaky Pipeline’ which argues that, over time, women end up dropping out of STEM because of a correlation of a number of separate but interplaying factors, rather than one single source of discrimination.

What about in Pakistan?

In Pakistan, 100% of girls interviewed for a recent study said that traditional roles and the associated cultural expectations were a reason for not pursuing these subjects. Marriageability was a large factor, with girls believing that STEM subjects and higher education might stop them attracting a husband. Often, girl’s education is seen as a luxury because of the cost.

Familial expectations were also a crucial factor in considering the future, with 60% of students citing this as a pressure. In particular, parental expectations were a deciding factor 90% of the time. Parents are also often more concerned about marriageability than their daughters, and more convinced that STEM subjects are too hard for girls.

The amount of money people have also plays a role, as young women with more educated parents often get more encouragement to pursue STEM subjects.

Across the board however in Pakistan, there is still a prevailing idea about what is an appropriate workplace or study environment for women and what is not. People typically see STEM subjects as having long hours and going out to do field work, which are not typically seen as acceptable for women.

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Why does it matter?

From a cynical perspective, by not nurturing and utilising the talents, minds and skills of women, we are losing out in a huge way across the board. Just think what could be achieved were we to gain more brilliant minds in each of these fields.

Equally, women have a different perspective to men, and having a diverse workforce where people bring their own unique experiences, makes for a much more fruitful, creative and collaborative team. In STEM subjects, where there are plenty of challenges and the need to think outside of the box, more female voices would help everybody take huge steps forward.

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What can we do about it?

Ultimately, all of this information shows just how complex an issue this is that no one solution can fix. Clearly, a number of approaches are required to truly make a difference:

  • Make sure everyone has access to brilliant learning facilities and better STEM education
  • Encourage teachers and parents to have higher expectations for their daughters
  • Research also shows that girls benefit from female-only settings, so more all-girls institutions and science clubs would help
  • Social activism which changes how female engineers are perceived, leading to more female-friendly workplaces
  • change women’s minds, but also how families and communities see STEM subjects

Did you enjoy this article? Read our feature on Geek Girls here

Image: ‘Scientist Mini-figure’ CC John Morrissette