European Girls in STEM

On May 5, 2017

Only 12.6% of Italian students take a STEM-related university course and only 6.4% of them work in ICT.

The interest for STEMs begins at 11 years but fades around 17 years old.

With the launch of Cloud 2017, Microsoft released the “European Girls in STEM” research. It is the first study that determines the exact time when young women lose interest in studying technical-scientific subjects and what motivations, patterns, and pathways we can identify to prevent this decline and counter gender gaps and stereotypes

The 2017 Nuvola Rosa edition of the project that began in 2013, supports the diffusion of digital skills through free training courses for thousands of young women in Italy and abroad. The initiative, organized by Microsoft in collaboration with Fondazione Mondo Digitale and growITup, will involve more than 1,500 female and female students from all over Italy. From March to December 2017, over 40 training courses will take place in the Microsoft House Digital Classes and in the classrooms of Cariplo Factory. The classes range from basic computer skills and coding to robotics and digital art.

The official launch of the Nuvola Rosa was a great occasion to release “European Girls in STEM.” This study was commissioned by Microsoft and Professor Martin W Bauer of the Department of Psychological and Behavioral Science at the London School of Economics (LSE). It is the first truly comprehensive study on females in STEM. It surveyed 11,000 young women from ages 11 to 30 from 12 European countries—Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom, Russia, and Slovakia.

The research identifies the exact moment young women lose interest in studying technical-scientific subjects and how to identify patterns to prevent this decline.

More about the problem:

Over the last decade, employment in the European technology sector has grown at a three times the rate of general employment. If we had enough women and men on the digital labor market, the annual GDP of the EU could grow by 9 billion euros. It is crucial to encourage girls to undertake training and professional paths, both to create new professional opportunities, and to revive the country’s economy, yet there are still many limitations.

According to research at European level, the interest of the majority of girls for STEM’s subjects begins at about 11.5 years and then dropped dramatically between 15 and 16 years. In Italy, interest also arises at 11 years, but falls slightly after the age of 17 and then reaches a peak at age 26. This age generally corresponds with the time students need to decide how to pursue their own study paths choosing whether or not to enroll at University. It is no coincidence that only 12.6% of Italian students take a STEM-related university course, 6.4% work in ICT, and 13.3% in engineering related fields.

Other interesting data on young female Italians:

  • They place themselves in the top three countries in Europe for interest in science and computer science during the school year (42.1% claim to be passionate about math during the school trip)
  • They lead for interest in scientific subjects, especially math (41.7%, European average of 37.6%), computer science (49.2% European average 42.2%), and biology (39.2%, the European average of 40.2%).
  • They are convinced of their potential: 59% of young Italians say they would get excellent results in STEM study
  • They are innovative and determined:1% declare themselves to be very creative and have very different ideas and perspectives; 79.3% challenge existing knowledge; 55.5% have new ideas when they observe how people interact with products and services; 72.9% are convinced that solutions to problems in a specific field must osmotically inspire what is happening in other areas
  • 6% do not care about the perception of friends and acquaintances who might consider them “less smart” if they show interest in STEMs

The decisive factors for choosing: there are not equal gender opportunities!

The belief that there are not equal opportunities in the STEM field is one of the first factors influencing the decision of young female Italian students to abandon their passion for science. In general, the study points out that optimism derived from an original passion for STEMs and the conviction of having the potential to deal with any type of training or professional course is then overwhelmed by realism.

The research has highlighted on one hand an encouraging and optimistic shared view among young women: the awareness that their generation is the first in which men and women have concretely equal opportunities in all social domains in general. However, things change if one looks at technical and scientific areas: 41.6% of the young female Italians would consider a STEM-related profession (42% European average). Paradoxically, 66.1% (far above the European average of 59%) admitted that they would feel more comfortable to pursue a profession in STEM if there was confirmation that women were given the same men’s working treatment.

Other factors include: the lack of strong female role models in STEM (43.8% say that when thinking of a student, the first image of a man), the lack of practical experiences during school, a lack of understanding of concrete applications that show what you can accomplish through training, and professional paths in the STEM.

Encouragement and reference models are fundamental

The study identified five factors of statistical relevance in Europe that affect girls’ interest in STEM materials and are listed below in order of importance:

  1. Find female role models in STEM environments;
  2. Practice practical exercises in STEM materials;
  3. Have teachers encouraging them to devote themselves to STEM;
  4. Know real applications that show them what they can accomplish through STEM disciplines;
  5. Have greater security that women and men have equal opportunities in STEM professions;

In Italy, the situation seems somewhat different if one considers that, as noted in the previous paragraph, 66.1% would feel more comfortable pursuing a profession in STEM if she had the confirmation of equal treatment with men, that 60.6% of girls would like to receive more encouragement from teachers, of women working in the sector 44.9% would like greater encouragement from their parents and 44% from their friends.

The role of mothers and teachers is paramount

Among the positive points emerging, which are also strategic in terms of promoting technical-scientific training, is the fact that 50.3% of respondents said that teachers often talk about the importance of STEM. 69.6% also told us that most of their STEM teachers are women (European average 55%).

Despite the predominance of female teachers and the great encouragement they receive from them, the culture is still predominantly linked to males. This seems to have a stronger deterrent than that of the positive and proactive models.

The role of the family is also very important: 43.8% say that both parents often talk about the importance of studying technical-scientific subjects, but the maternal figure in particular seems to play a decisive role. In fact, 44.7% says that mother speaks very often about it versus 41.9% for her father.