Why don’t more girls choose STEM careers?


March 2019 - While in most countries women represent a majority of all graduates from tertiary education, fewer women than men complete Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) university degrees. New results based on data from the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) shed light on the role of relative academic strength in determining the extent of this gap (PISA in Focus N.93)

The study found that across 67 countries and economies that participated in PISA 2015, girls outperformed boys in science in 19, while boys outperformed girls in 22. In all other countries, the gender differences were not statistically significant. When the authors analysed gender gaps by looking at each student’s “relative performance” or “strength” across the three subjects of reading, science, and mathematics, they found that girls were stronger in reading in all countries, while boys were stronger in mathematics in all countries, and in science in 65 out of 67. In other words, boys scored higher in science and mathematics compared to their all-subjects average while girls scored higher in reading. These differences could explain why boys are more likely than girls to choose careers in STEM fields, even though the overall performance of girls and boys is similar: students may choose their field of study based on their comparative strengths, rather than on their absolute strengths. Girls may be as good as boys in science, but are, on average, likely to be even better in reading.

Interestingly, the gender gap in favour of boys in relative strength in science is greater in more gender equal countries and the proportion of women graduating with a STEM university degree is smaller. This pattern remains to be investigated.


Figure 1. Gender equality and gender differences in relative strength in science, and the percentage of women among STEM graduates  



Further Reading

  • « Why don’t more girls choose to pursue a science career? », PISA in Focus, n° 93,  OECD Publishing, Paris, 
  • Stoet, G. and D.C. Geary (2018), “The Gender-Equality Paradox in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education”, Psychological Science, 29/4, 581–593. 
  • OECD (2018), "Indicator B5 Who is expected to graduate from tertiary education?", in Education at a Glance 2018: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris,

More data on the OECD Gender Data Portal


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