Teenage girls and science: a rocky love affair

When and why do young girls lose interest in science? These were the questions asked in a recent Microsoft study, which analyzed European teenage girls’ attitudes to STEM subjects. Remarkably, the study was able to pinpoint 15 as the precise age when interest in science begins to drop off. DiscovHER explores.

The importance of having more women in science is paramount: in a society increasingly dependent on technology, and given the necessity of science in fighting challenges such as climate change, the talents of skilled female scientists are desperately needed. According to the European Commission, Europe could face a shortage of up to 900,000 skilled IT workers by 2020 – women need to be an important part of making up that shortfall. For young women embarking on their career paths, too, STEM skills are essential in an increasingly digitized and technology-driven workplace.

In light of these facts, Microsoft launched a study exploring the reasons why more girls aren’t passionate about science. The technology company interviewed 11,500 girls and women aged 11-30 across Europe about their attitudes to science. Crucially, they found that girls tend to develop an interest in STEM at the age of 11, before losing interest at 15.

What exactly happens at this age? The study does not give a detailed explanation of what makes teenage girls change their minds, but study coordinator Martin Bauer argues that this is due to a mixture of “conformity to social expectations, gender stereotypes, gender roles and lack of role models”. Arguably, gender stereotypes have a role to play: teenage girls lose interest in sport, another subject typically characterized as masculine, at age 16.

Microsoft did, however, identify a range of potential solutions to this problem. The key factor in encouraging young girls to pursue a career in the sector appears to be having more female roles models in scientific fields. 60% of those surveyed indicated they would be more likely to pursue a career in science if they knew that women were equally employed in those fields. This hints at the possibility of creating a virtuous circle in STEM; by ensuring greater gender equality and promoting more women into top positions, more young women will be encouraged to study science and qualify for those top roles.

In another finding, Microsoft suggests that more practical experiments at school would be helpful in retaining girls’ interest in STEM. The encouragement of teachers was another factor identified by 57% of respondents as something that could make them consider pursuing a scientific career.

What do you think about Microsoft’s study on girls and STEM? Let us know @4womeninscience.

For Women in Science

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