This Is What’s Really Driving the Gender Gap in STEM

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Gender Inequity In STEM: Why Does It Exist?


What’s the biggest obstacle for women in STEM today?


I’ll tell you what the biggest obstacle is not: confidence. Despite the catchy refrain that says women in STEM are less confident than men, we can’t point our fingers at the “confidence gap” to explain what’s really holding women in STEM back.

That’s because the “confidence gap” is a product of our culture. And our culture tells us that girls and women aren’t fit for math, science, and engineering. If this explanation sounds too soft, take a look at the data.

Culture (not Confidence) Explains The Gender STEM Gap

In their pre-teen years, boys and girls have similar levels of confidence in their ability to forge a career in STEM. But as they grow into adolescence, stratification in STEM confidence occurs along gender lines: boys become more confident in their ability to succeed in STEM, whereas girls become less confident in their ability to succeed in STEM.

Why does this divergence appear as children grow older?

We can’t blame test scores. Despite their reported lack of confidence in STEM, girls outperform boys in STEM: 68% of 16-year-old girls vs. 65% of 16-year-old boys score highly in math and science exams.

What actually explains the divergence in STEM confidence is gendered cultural norms. The signals we take in from our culture (e.g. Hollywood, the media, children’s toys) play a large role in deciding who is fit for a career in STEM. 

These cultural norms tell girls they aren’t cut out for STEM, which in turn feeds a baseless narrative that girls and women should be less confident than boys and men in STEM.

But culture only tells the pre-labor-force story. What happens after women break the cultural barrier and enter the STEM labor force? Now that’s another story.

What Happens After Women Enter The STEM Labor Force

The Center for Talent Innovation found that 80% of US women working in science, engineering, and technology love their jobs. Eventually, however, 52% of highly talented women working in these fields leave their jobs, churning twice as fast as men.

Here are the top reasons why women leave their STEM careers:

  • Lack of career growth. This was the most common reason given, with 28.1% of women in STEM saying the lack of career trajectory was the major factor influencing their decision to leave their jobs.
  • Poor management. This was the second most common reason women gave (24.6%) as to why they left their STEM careers.
  • Slow salary growth. This was the third most common reason women gave (24.4%) as to why they left their STEM job.

The Takeaway

The takeaway from this data is not that women need to be more confident or competent to succeed in STEM. It’s that:

a.) our culture needs to normalize women in math, science, and engineering, and

b.) our workplaces need to close equity and opportunity gaps for women in STEM.

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