Women and STEM subjects: equal opportunities in undergraduate education

Culture - October 18, 2022

STEM (an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and women: a winning combination, but only half of it. That’s because the data collected on the subject tell of a stark gender disparity: boys account for the largest number of enrollments in degree programs involving science subjects. There is a catch, however: in recent years, there has been a growth in interest in such subjects among girls as well, and concomitantly an increase in enrollment in science and technology institutions. On the other hand, the world is increasingly in need of job figures who can fill specific roles in science and technology.


When we talk about disparity here, we are referring to the social, practical and cultural reasons that lead to the above gap. So, we start from the assumption that the idea of young women not approaching science subjects is not always a free and conscious choice; there are stakes, sometimes ideal, sometimes structural, that are major obstacles. While it is the job market that offers few stimuli and opportunities-and astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, now head of the International Space Station, will be happy to disagree-it is also cultural legacies, prejudices and public opinion that form a wall that is difficult to break down. In fact, as in other areas, equality between men and women has yet to be achieved in the world of education, despite the calendar reminding us that the year 2022 runs.


STEM and women: current data


Before proceeding with the analysis of the reasons for talking about the gender gap in STEM, let us report some useful data. In Italy, for the 2020/2021 academic year, women accounted for 60 percent of graduates (data taken from Almalaurea’s First Thematic Gender Report: “Female Graduates and Graduates: Professional Choices, Experiences and Accomplishments”). However, a survey conducted by Ipsos for Save the Children, shared on Feb. 11, 2022 on the occasion of the International Day for Women and Girls in Science, reports that during 2021, only 22 percent of girls in the Bel Paese chose to pursue STEM subjects. Although the number is up from previous years, these are still worrying figures. Save The Children also confirms, however, that there is great awareness among young female students of how crucial their input in science and technology subjects can be.


Extending the analysis globally, a recent report, by WeWorld, “We Stem for Our Future,” finds that only 35 percent of people enrolled in STEM majors worldwide belong to the female gender. Delving deeper into the data, for example: 7 percent attend engineering, compared to 22 percent of male students.


But why does this happen? Why despite the high interest of girls in STEM subjects is the picture so murky and nebulous?


A downward trend dictated by the socioeconomic context


The reasons why young women do not pursue a path in STEM subjects are to be found in the socio-economic context in which they grow up and move on a daily basis.

This is reflected in several studies conducted in recent years. Many girls are conditioned by cultural legacies that although anachronistic continue to dictate. University of California-Hastings law professor Joan C. Williams asserts that prejudice is still one of the sharpest elements in women’s choice of college and career path to take. Assuming that women earn about half as much as their male counterparts in the same role and that in STEM in the United States, the female gender makes up 27 percent of the workforce, Williams set out to interview a sample of women and men to return a factual reflection on bias. She gleaned from the survey that many women feel they have to prove their worth and abilities to both male colleagues and those in leadership roles. In addition, she also asserts that many feel constant pressure simply for being women: Williams explains that some fear being considered too feminine and concomitantly paying too little attention to their skills; others fear being considered masculine if they “neglect” clothing or general personal care. The lecturer goes on to draw another profile, one that then, in reality, affects all areas of work: becoming a parent and thus losing the role of a worker to take on that of a mother. In this case, a further assessment must be made: if institutions do not support families adequately, it can become complex to unhinge legacies. What is needed in the US, as in Italy, is an appropriate approach to family policies.


Then there is a relevant issue-already introduced by Williams-to be explored: that of compensation. If young women have the perception that they are starting at a disadvantage, it is clear that their aspirations are being scaled back.

In this regard, a 2022 Confcommercio report on women’s businesses, compiled by Terziario Donna Confcommercio together with the “Guglielmo Tagliacarne” Chambers of Commerce Study Center, showed that women’s businesses in Italy saw a sharp decline in 2021, -12.1 percent. Such businesses struggle to keep up with the pace of male businesses and have poor internationalization. In addition, they do not enjoy favorable investment.

In any case, companies also prefer to hire men trained in STEM subjects: both because the parterre is wider, considering the number of graduates in science and technology disciplines, and because, as anticipated, the male gender is believed to have a predisposition, a greater aptitude for this type of activity.


For the record, progress is being made. Although parity is a long way off, the latest Eurostat data collected on the subject tells of growth on European soil. And there is also another factor to consider: the changing narrative. If the world is moving toward digital and ecological transitions, more and more specialized figures will be needed, regardless of gender, who can move professionally. The younger generation also seems to be very attentive to the issue of equal opportunity. On social networks, the topic is often debated, and it seems that old legacies are giving way to a narrative free of constraints that is out of date and unfair.

There are also increasing “examples” of women in leadership roles becoming icons of change. Mention has already been made of astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti who, at the launch of the Barbie doll representing her in 2018, expressed the hope that: “Maybe the fun and imagery of my doll floating in weightlessness will stimulate little girls’ imaginations and lead them to consider a career in STEM, that would really be something amazing.” Of course, it is only an example because out of six hundred people who have “floated in weightlessness” to date, only 12 percent belong to the female gender.

However, the time seems to be ripe. And even though circumstances sometimes complicate the advancement of the process-pandemic and wars-there is a great desire on the part of the very young and young-at-heart to learn about science and new technologies, indiscriminately.


During the last election campaign, in Italy, the one that saw Fratelli di Italia triumph, the party’s leader, Giorgia Meloni, recalled the importance of university study and the right to study, strengthening subsidies and scholarships. She also referred to “support” for STEM disciplines, recognizing their relevance especially as necessary and international.