Girls more likely to study STEM subjects

There are predictions of worldwide shortages in graduates from STEM courses, yet only 6.6 per cent of Australian girls studied advanced mathematics in 2013, half the rate of boys. Even worse, in NSW, only 1.5 per cent of girls took advanced mathematics, physics and chemistry. Girls’ schools, however, are bucking the trend, with girls choosing to take mathematics, technology and advanced mathematics and physical science combinations at rates far higher than the national average.

• A 2019 American study has found that teenage girls are less likely to do well in maths and science or complete a bachelor’s degree when they have greater proportions of high-achieving boys in their classes. Cools, Fernández and Patacchini (2019, p. 20) found that: “Faced with a greater proportion of ‘high-performing’ boys, girls may become less confident about their own ability in traditionally male-dominated fields such as math [sic] and science. More generally, these high school girls may become more discouraged or think themselves less competent which could then affect their actual performance.”

• A 2018 study by Xunfei Li and Ping-Yun Kuan found that 47.1% of girls from single-sex schools in Taiwan chose the science curriculum track (physics, chemistry and biology) in their senior years, compared with 34.5% of girls in co-ed schools (p. 13). For girls with high maths performance, the probability of choosing the science track in a girls’ school was 0.168 higher than for girls in co-ed schools (p. 19).

• Norwegian researchers have found that a higher proportion of female peers in lower secondary classes increases girls’ maths grades and the likelihood that they will choose STEM-based courses in upper secondary school, prompting the researchers to posit that, “girls help girls” when it comes to STEM grades and educational choices (Shøne, von Simson & Strøm, 2017, p. 27).

• A 2017 report by Monash University academics Helen Forgasz and Gilah Leder found that girls attending single-sex schools in Victoria were significantly more likely to study chemistry (27.6% vs 15.4%) and intermediate mathematics (Mathematical Methods) than girls in co-ed schools (36.3% vs 21.6%). They were also more likely to study advanced mathematics (Specialist Mathematics) (8.9% vs 4.8%) and physics than girls in co-ed schools (7.5% vs 5.1%).

• Forgasz and Leder’s study also found that girls at single-sex girls were equally as likely as boys at single-sex schools (27.6% vs 27.0%) and more likely than boys from co-ed schools (20.1%) to study chemistry, and girls at single-sex girls were equally as likely as boys at co-ed schools to study intermediate mathematics (36.3% vs 36.2%).

• A 2017 Australian study has found that single-sex environments have a positive impact on girls through encouraging them to take more male-dominated subjects and university degrees than girls in co-educational schools. Specifically, girls in single-sex schools who achieve highly in mathematics are more likely to choose male-dominated subjects and degrees than girls from co-educational schools who are good at mathematics (Tran, 2017, pp. 59-60). A one standard deviation increase in a girl’s mathematics score increases her subject choice score (i.e., the chance that she will choose a male-dominated subject) by 0.485 standard deviations for a girl in a single-sex school but only 0.146 standard deviations for a girl in a co-educational school (p. 67).

• In 2015, 69% of girls attending Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST) schools in England opted to three science subjects at GCSE level. At A-level (where most students take three subjects), 46% of sixth form girls took at least one science and 38% took maths. Compared to the national average for girls, GDST students were more likely to take chemistry (9.1% of GDST girls vs 5.5% of girls nationally), maths (12.5% vs 7.7%) and physics (3.6% vs 1.7%) (Stannard, 2018, p. 16).

• A 2015 article by Julie Fisher and Helen Forgasz of Monash University and Catherine Lang of La Trobe University stated that their four-year research project into all-girl IT classes at seven co-educational and three girls’ schools found that girls feel more confident taking information technology (IT) classes in single-sex environments. Although girls were not asked about the all-girl environment, 45% made a specific positive comment unprompted, while five of the seven teachers from co-educational schools “commented on the value of the all-girl class”.

• These findings are borne out in girls’ schools where IT and computer coding, robotics, electronics, app design and text-based programming are embedded into the curriculum.

• In 2010, Tully and Jacobs noted that 22% of female students in New South Wales attended a single-sex school, but 40% of female engineering students at the University of Technology in Sydney were from girls’ secondary schools (pp. 458, 463). They concluded that the “culture of a single gender school may provide a unique socialisation process, which allows a young woman the freedom to reach beyond stereotypical career expectations” (p. 463).

• In 2013, Rudolf Eliott Lockhart, Head of Research for the UK’s Independent Schools Council, presented research showing that in 2012, girls from Girls’ Schools Association (GSA) schools in the UK constituted only 5% of girls taking A-levels but comprised 15.9% of girls doing Further Maths, 13.4% of girls doing Physics and 8.9% of girls doing Chemistry. Furthermore, Lockhart’s research showed that girls from GSA schools were awarded:

  • 25.9% of all Physics A* grades awarded to girls,
  • 24.7% of all Further Maths A* grades awarded to girls, and
  • 19.8% of all Chemistry A* grades awarded to girls.

• In 2012, the Institute of Physics (UK) published the It’s Different for Girls report which found that 49% of all government co-ed schools did not have a single female student taking A-level physics (p. 12) and that girls attending independent single-sex schools were four times more likely to take A-level physics than girls in government co-ed schools (p. 15). In fact, 7.2% of girls in single-sex independent schools took A-level physics in 2011 compared with 4.9% of girls in co-ed independent schools, 4.3% of girls in single-sex government schools and 1.8% of girls in co-ed government schools (p. 15).