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Women in STEM: Out with the stereotypes, in with the role models

Whether IT expert, engineer or chemist - women are significantly less represented in technical and scientific professions than men. It is true that the proportion of female students in STEM subjects has increased. However, many girls and young women still have reservations about such professions or underestimate their abilities, as surveys show. Experts agree that more female role models are needed to change this. 

​​Young female student sits in front of a microscope and enters data into a computer with the help of her female teacher.​

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. These subjects are still considered a ”male domain“. Technical degree programs seem to be less attractive to young women. Why is that? According to studies, outdated clichés play a role. 

In a study conducted by the University of Zurich, 1,500 secondary school students were given the choice between fictitious subjects. The female students tended to decide against subjects that primarily require analytical thinking but supposedly require few social and emotional skills. In contrast, the majority of them favoured occupational fields that rely more on creativity and social skills, and which presumably offer more opportunities for part-time work.

Prejudices influence career choice

The study's author, Benita Combet, attributes this result to persistent prejudices. ”There are still strong gender stereotypes, particularly in relation to factors such as logical thinking and technical skills, which appear to have a significant impact on female students' choices," explains Combet, who recommends that female students should be better informed about these subjects. Many common perceptions are not true, for example that studying engineering is only about being a technically minded person. It also requires interpersonal and creative skills. 

Of the 1.08 million students enrolled in STEM subjects at German universities in the winter semester of 2022/2023, just under a third were women. There are major differences between the various subjects, as figures from the German Federal Statistical Office show: the highest proportion of women in their first semester was in interior design (87 per cent), the lowest in automotive engineering (8 per cent). Computer science was in the lower midfield at around 23 per cent.

​​Female electronics worker soldering a component​

Professions that require a degree in STEM subjects have always been male dominated. According to a report by the German Economic Institute (IW), 732,100 of the 3.12 million STEM graduates in employment in 2020 were female - less than a quarter. The discrepancy is even greater in apprenticeship programs. Here, the proportion of women in 2022 was just under nine per cent.

Girls misjudge their strengths

Despite having the same skills, girls rate themselves lower than boys in STEM subjects, the IW report continues. Considering the shortage of skilled workers, the authors call for ”stereotype-free career and study guidance“: ”Better feedback systems at schools can help girls and young women to better recognize their existing STEM strengths.”

Gender-specific prejudices not only have a negative impact on self-evaluation, but can even lead to female students performing lower in maths and science subjects. This is the conclusion reached by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) in its report The STEM Gap. ”The foundation for a STEM career is laid early in life, “ writes the AAUW. Parents and teachers should encourage girls instead of reinforcing biases. 

​​Young students watching a chemical reaction in a science experiment in the classroom​

Even after successfully completing their studies, women are less likely to choose an actual STEM profession than men. Evidently, some of this is related to the lack of role models. In other words, female role models are a key factor in future career choices. This is confirmed, for example, by figures from a study conducted by the US software company Microsoft, for which young women and girls across Europe were surveyed. According to the study, around two-fifths of them are interested in STEM subjects if they have a role model in this field - almost twice as many as respondents without a role model. And that's not all: female students with role models rate their performance in STEM subjects higher overall than those without role models.

This result is consistent with other studies on the topic of women in STEM professions. In a survey conducted by the IU International University of Applied Sciences Erfurt, 70 per cent of the female students questioned reported that they were interested in STEM subjects. However, more than 40 per cent also stated that they felt overwhelmed by such topics. Here, too, it was noticeable that there was a lack of female role models: Only a few participants had a female friend or relative who works in a STEM profession. Women with a technical or scientific career should therefore be more widely recognized - by female pupils, trainees and students as well as by teachers and parents.

This article is the first in a series of articles that Heraeus uses to highlight women in STEM professions. We introduce female experts who are involved in innovative projects, talk to a woman in a leadership position and let a female young professional share her perspective.