In 2017 there are still less girls than boys majoring in sciences. Why does this happen, and what can we do promote a more balanced picture?

A year ago, the Henrietta Szold Institute for Research in the Behavioral Sciences performed a study on the potential girls have to excel in mathematics and sciences. The study was based on data collected on high school graduates from 2010 to 2014, who took at least one matriculation exam. The picture arising from the data was quite problematic – there are significant differences between the percentage of girls compared to boys who took the high-level mathematics, physics and computer science exam: in mathematics, 12% of male students took the 5-point level exam, while only 9% of female students did; 13% of male students majored in physics, while only 6% of female students did; 10% of male students majored in computer science, while only 4% of female students did;

Compare to these fields, the percentage of girls who chose to major in biology was actually higher than that of boys – 20% vs. 12%, and so is the case in chemistry – 10% vs. 7%.

Why is it important to encourage girls to major in sciences?

The majors students choose during high school have a strong impact on their choices later on in life. In addition, certain majors, such as 5-point-level mathematics, open doors for higher education, and are a prerequisite in certain academic departments. Also, gender diversity, in every field, but especially in academia, encourages creativity, originality and innovation, as well as an environment that is easily adaptable to the ever-changing world around us. Moreover, school is perceived as a place in which we should all have equal rights, and where success is based only on merit and effort. The abilities and tools that students acquire throughout high school and in higher education translate into income and social status – therefore it is important that female students have those same opportunities.

The researchers tried to understand what could be the reasons for the gender differences they found in Israel, as well as what could be done in order to ensure girls fulfill their full potential in scientific subjects. For this purpose, they analyzed and processed data from the Ministry of Education regarding major choices and grades between 2010-2014 in mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, and computer science. In addition, they conducted interviews with female students, parents, teachers, experts in gender studies, and experts from the Ministry of Education.

Unfulfilled mathematical potential

In order to answer the question of potential in mathematics, the researchers compared female graduates of 5-point-level mathematics to those of 4 or 3-point levels. They found the graduates of the 5-point level differ from the others in that their parents tend to have academic degrees, and that they come from schools with students from high socioeconomic backgrounds. This means that choosing 5-point-level mathematics is related also to the familial situation and socioeconomic status, and it is reasonable to assume that there are female students with unmet potential as a result of environmental factors and not scientific capabilities.

Where does the preference of biology and chemistry come from?

From the interviews conducted by the researchers some information regarding the students' preferences arose: female students chose biology and chemistry since they perceived these majors as more useful for their futures, in professions like medicine and pharmacology. In addition, they expressed their fear of failure and a will to excel, and therefore were intimidated by subjects like physics, in which it is generally more difficult to excel. Another factor that intimidated the students was their distaste with the competitive environment that characterizes scientific majors. When asked why they did not choose to study mathematics on a 5-point level, the most common reply was that they were not good enough. When closely examined, it was apparent that their opinion was not based on previous achievements or grades, but on negative stereotypes coming from the environment or low self-esteem.

The study also showed that the fellow classmates were the most significant factor in the female students' choices, making boys choose physics and high-level mathematics and makes girls avert them. Many female students feel uncomfortable and inferior when they are a minority in a science class, and are afraid to fail in comparison to other students. In certain cases, girls described instances of boys bullying girls, explicitly saying that girls should not be learning complex scientific subjects since they "are not for girls". This can also progress into exclusion of female students from class activities and initiatives, such as Whatsapp chats in which students discuss the study material and help each other. In addition, the female students indicated that their different approach to studying led to tension between them and the male students – while they are interested in deepening their understanding of the material, the male students are more interested in progressing to the next topic, without in-depth understanding.

Another reason that led less female students to choose physics and 5-point-level mathematics was the lack of a role model – in these subjects male teachers were the majority, in comparison to more female faculty in biology and chemistry. This situation reinforced their perception that physics and mathematics are more masculine fields and are not suitable for them. 

Sometime girls hear that "physics and mathematics are not for girls". Physics lesson | Photograph: Shutterstock  

What happens when a female student excels and when a male student fails?

Researchers have attempted to understand the source of these differences in representation and achievements for dozens of years. One hypothesis states that the differences in achievements and career choices stem from gender differences in self-perception. For instance, researchers have shown that women, compared to men, perceive themselves as less mathematically talented, and have lower expectations from their grades, even before taking the exam, despite very little differences in the exam score itself. Other studies have indicated substantial differences between the ways in which male and female students interpret success and failure in exams in general: when female students succeed, they attribute their success to external factors – for instance, "the exam was easy" or "I was lucky". In contrast, when they fail they blame themselves and question their abilities. Male students display an opposite picture: if they succeed, they attribute it to themselves – "I am smart and understand the material", and when they fail, they blame the environment – "the exam was difficult". 

And how does all of this pan out?

These different approaches towards success and failure are called attributions. An internal attribution is when we attribute something to ourselves (e.g., personal ability, effort), and external attribution is when we attribute something to the environment (e.g., luck, external assistance, the difficulty of the task at hand). Research shows that emotions such as pride and shame stem from internal, rather than external, attributions – for instance, we will not feel ashamed of our failure if we think it happened because the exam was very difficult. In contrast, if we attribute our failure to our lack of understanding of the study material, we feel bad about ourselves. And what does this mean with regard to the female students? When they succeed, they do not feel proud or self-confident, since they do not attribute the success to themselves. Whereas, when they fail, they feel ashamed, since they usually do attribute failure to themselves. These perceptions shape their self-esteem and sense of competence, which is very significant when students face the decision of choosing a major. Afterwards, the different attributions made by male and female students can influence, for instance, their tendency to study mathematics: when female students attribute failure to themselves and success to external factors, they estimate their ability as being low, so they rather avoid situations that involve mathematics. Compared to them, male students attribute their success to their own abilities and their failure to the environment, and therefore estimate their ability as being high and continue studying mathematics. It is important to mention that the studies show that the tendency to either avert or be attracted to mathematics does not stem from a difference in achievements between female and male students, but mainly from their self-expectations and internal attributions.   

What can be done?

In order to address the challenges that girls face when choosing scientific majors, the researchers recommend first of all to change the common perception among school faculty, parents and both female and male students. In order to make it easier for girls to choose mathematical and scientific studies, it is important to explain the situation and the possible contributing factors, as well as have a discussion about gender stereotypes and how fields are wrongly perceived as "masculine". These fields can also be made more accessible to female students by exposing them to the field early on. One way of doing so is organizing meetings with inspirational role models such as female high-school students majoring in sciences, women that work in these fields in education, academia and industry. As mentioned above, these perceptions do not begin with the students themselves, but have probably been passed-on from generations before them. Therefore, it is important to work with school principals, teachers and counselors through examination of their stereotypical perceptions of scientific subjects and how they influence their attitudes towards their female students. 


Translated by Elee Shimshoni