Nudging Girls into STEM Works in High School, But Does the Effect Last?

What is the effect of strengthening the science curriculum in secondary school on the probability that boys and girls graduate in STEM majors at university? In “STEM Graduates and Secondary School Curriculum: Does Early Exposure to Science Matter?” Marta De Philippis studies the introduction of an advanced science course targeting students at the top of the grade distribution in UK secondary schools and how it affects future work in STEM.

De Philippis finds that taking five more hours per week of science classes significantly increases the probability of enrolling and, very importantly, of graduating from university with a STEM degree, even for these very high-ability students.

However, the effect on STEM masks a substantial gender difference—at age 14, when exposed to the option of studying more science in secondary school, there is no gender difference, and girls and boys both participate. At age 17, there is still little difference. The difference arises later on, at university, when subject choices are likely to be correlated with future occupations and jobs. Both young men and women are induced to take more challenging courses on average, but women still choose more female-dominated—mostly non-STEM—subjects.

This result suggests that increasing preparation in STEM subjects, and providing more signals of individuals’ ability in science before they choose their university degree is not effective by itself in reducing the gender gap in STEM. In this context, a more useful policy, in line with the existing literature, would probably be to focus on jobs characteristics or on the formation of stereotypes.

Read the study in the Journal of Human Resources: “STEM Graduates and Secondary School Curriculum: Does Early Exposure to Science Matter?” by Marta De Philippis.

Marta De Philippis is a researcher at the Bank of Italy and a research associate at the Centre of Economic Performance, London School of Economics (@martadph).