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Positive trend stalled – women still underrepresented in STEM subjects

Women are strongly underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The positive trend of the past seems to have stalled, according to a study ordered by the Nordic Council of Ministers.

Kristian Mørk Puggaard. Photo: Ty Stange
 Kristian Mørk Puggaard. Photo: Ty Stange

‘In the last 5–10 years, we haven’t seen any positive development,’ says Kristian Mørk Puggaard at DAMVAD Analytics, the company that carried out the study for the Nordic Council of Ministers.
The results of the study are presented in the report Piger i Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) – Kortlægning af udfordringer inden for køn, ligestilling og uddannelse i Norden, freely translated ‘girls in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) – mapping of challenges in the areas of gender, gender equality and education in the Nordic region’.
The study is based on statistics on educational choices from Eurostat and a questionnaire survey of school children in Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Iceland. The questionnaire survey shows that girls to a larger extent than boys doubt their own abilities within the so-called STEM subjects. This is a big challenge for the schools, according to Mørk Puggaard.
‘The girls must be able to envision themselves in these occupations and feel they are qualified. Right now they really don’t,’ he says.

Parents educational backgrounds important

The study also included focus interviews with women who have chosen to pursue an education in technical disciplines. They reveal that teachers, study counsellors and parents have had a strong influence on their occupational choice. In particular their own parents’ attitudes and educational backgrounds are identified as important factors. Most informants who chose a STEM-related education had at least one parent who worked in a STEM domain.
‘In their families, they often talk about educational choices, and we can see that those discussions have been of great importance,’ says Mørk Puggaard.
The male dominance in the STEM subjects can be observed in all Nordic countries, including Greenland and the Faroe Islands, but some differences can also be noted. For example, significantly more women are studying mathematics in Finland than in Sweden and Iceland. Some countries also display a positive development in certain specific subject areas. For example, an increasing number of Ålandic women are working in construction and manufacturing. In Norway, a similar trend can be seen in some engineering programmes, yet the changes are small and the data generally shows that the number of women has stagnated at a low level in the Nordic countries, Mørk Puggaard points out.

Big challenge for the Nordic countries

Kira Appel. Private photo
 Kira Appel. Private photo

Kira Appel, chief adviser at the Danish Ministry for Children, Education and Gender Equality, agrees that increasing the share of women who get a degree in a STEM subject is a big challenge for the Nordic countries.
‘It’s important at the societal level, for individual women and not least for the STEM sectors. There’s a shortage of labour in these fields and there is an untapped potential in the population. We also know that work environments where women and men work together are more innovative and overall effective,’ she says.
The assessment of the Nordic countries started last year during the Danish Presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers. Besides a description of the current situation, the report gives examples of Nordic initiatives that have been made to break away from the

male dominance. Mørk Puggaard warns that measures that target girls specifically can be counterproductive.
‘The study clearly shows that the girls don’t want that type of special treatment. They see it as stigmatising and believe it reinforces the view of girls as less able,’ he says.

Positive examples 

A positive example that targets all children is the House of Natural Sciences in Denmark, which is a centre created to get children and adolescents interested in science experiments. The centre also targets teachers by sharing advice on how teaching activities can be made more attractive to the children.
Mørk Puggaard thinks that teachers need to be more attentive to what they convey to the schoolchildren.
‘They need to encourage girls in the same way as they encourage boys. Otherwise we will never be able to change this pattern,’ he says.
For change to happen, the politicians need to take a comprehensive approach and engage both schools and employers, he points out.
‘Previous initiatives have been fragmented. We need to work holistically in order to change the notion of who can work and become successful in these areas,’ he says.
As a follow up to the report, the Nordic Council of Ministers will develop a handbook with advice on how to draw more young people to the STEM subjects. Appel thinks that the Nordic countries can learn a lot from projects completed elsewhere in the region.
‘We have similar challenges and goals. Instead of starting from scratch with new projects, we can keep building on each other’s experiences,’ she says.

Updated 18 April 2020