For decades we have wrestled with the disturbing statistics about gender balance in STEM, showing lower participation by women in STEM careers, particularly in physics and engineering. Things are slowly improving, but the “leaky pipeline” analogy that sees girls and women dropping out at every stage, from elementary school through to professional careers, is still valid. Most girls have already decided before high school graduation, whether they are interested in a science career. The importance of early exposure to female role models is universally accepted as part of the solution, but it is worth spending some time thinking more deeply about the problem.
So, why do girls drop out of STEM, even when they are doing as well – or even better – than boys in STEM subjects?
Here is my own story: In grade school, I was always the “brainy one”. For years, I was always among the top students in math and science in every grade. My first physics course, Physics 11, was one of my favorite courses, mostly due to our excellent teacher, Mr. Negrin. It was more boys than girls, but plenty of girls were in the class. So of course, I signed up for Physics 12.
I still remember walking into the first day of Physics 12. There was a different, less engaging and welcoming teacher, and it turned out that I was the only girl in a class of 25 people. I sat through the first class and by the end, I remember thinking, “Nope. I did not sign up for this. It’s my grad year, I’m supposed to have fun.-Not worth it!” Even with my boyfriend in the class, it was not appealing enough to stay. In fact, some people thought I was only taking it because my boyfriend was in the class. After class, I walked down the hall and transferred into English Literature 12, a lively, fun class with lots of girls.
A study* of 1,327 Swedish secondary school students explored why more boys are drawn to STEM subjects at university, whereas more girls are attracted to HEED (health, elementary education and domestic) subjects.
This difference was partially explained by “social belongingness”: teens felt they would fit in better in subjects that had more of their own gender. Another key factor was “self-efficacy”: the belief that one can succeed in a domain. People tend to approach domains where they feel competent and avoid those where they do not. Both boys and girls had high self-efficacy in the HEED subjects, but boys chose not to pursue them. The researchers suggest that this may reflect the low social value and rewards boys associated with careers in these spheres.
Girls had much lower self-efficacy ratings, on average, in STEM subjects, despite outperforming boys in course work across these subjects. Sweden has been shown to be one of the world’s most gender-neutral countries,; however, girls still seem to be succumbing to the stereotype that girls aren’t as capable in these subjects, even when they have superior grades.
In my own case, the social belongingness, was a big driver in my dropping out of physics. In retrospect, having never seen, much less met, a female physicist or engineer at that point it my life, I could not imagine myself in that role. It felt at the time, that if I did choose a career in physics or engineering, I would be signing up for a lifetime of replaying that same experience of the first day of Physics 12, walking in and being the lone girl. My boyfriend stayed in Physics 12 and went on to a Masters degree in Engineering Physics, and a very successful career in Silicon Valley.
Like many women, I dropped science to pursue a business degree and found success in the biotechnology sector as a CFO and now have the great privilege of being the CEO for TRIUMF Innovations, the commercialization arm at TRIUMF, Canada’s particle accelerator centre, where I have rediscovered my love of physics. Working with the great physicists, engineers, and radiochemists at TRIUMF to bring their discoveries and innovations to the world is, for me, the perfect place to be. But I do wonder how things might have turned out differently with better role models, teaching modalities and programs to support girls in STEM. Looking forward, I am encouraged by the number of young women studying and working at TRIUMF and proud to be a part of our organization’s efforts to continue to improve STEM opportunities for the girls of today and the future.