New UNESCO and IEA brief: Missing out on half of the world’s potential in mathematics and science

UNESCO IEA brief on mathematics an science education

In many countries, young women make up only 25% of students in engineering or information and communication technology (ICT). What explains the lack of girls in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and ICT fields?

In a new brief, UNESCO and the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) explore the relationship between students’ gender, their confidence and achievement in science and mathematics, and their aspirations to pursue careers in these fields.

Factors at play

While many countries invest significant resources in ICT and STEM, gender disparities appear in both employment and education. Too many girls and women are held back by gender norms and stereotypes that shape the subjects they choose to study, and eventually the careers they take up.

Based on IEA’s Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) 2019 data, the brief finds that in almost all education systems (87%), boys respond significantly more often than girls that they would like to pursue a career that involves mathematics.

The education systems where more boys aspire to careers in science are also among those where more boys aspire to careers in mathematics. This could suggest, at the system level, that there are structural, cultural or other factors at play in shaping students’ gendered beliefs and views about STEM and ICT careers.

Confidence and achievement

For both girls and boys, high confidence in their skills in mathematics or science is associated with a higher likelihood to aspire to a career in mathematics or science.

But boys tend to be more confident in mathematics and science than girls. The brief finds that more high performing boys than girls aspire to enter a career in mathematics. This is also the case for boys with low achievement in mathematics.

For the many young women who are high achievers in mathematics and sciences, the study pathways most often followed include biology, medicine or psychology rather than physics, mathematics and engineering. Girls' self-confidence is therefore key to their pursuit of scientific studies.

What can we do?

Self-confidence can be affected in many ways. Peers, parents, teachers and school counsellors, as well as learning materials, can hold, perpetuate or even promote gender stereotypes in STEM, keeping highly skilled girls and women out of STEM and ICT fields.

We must multiply opportunities for girls and young women to build their confidence – and empower them through education and tech skills – so that they can take their place in our digital and scientific societies as engineers and innovators.

Read the brief and learn more about strategies to overcome potential social and psychological barriers that may hold girls and women back. These include aspects around school and career guidance and counselling, STEM clubs, teaching and learning materials, role models and mentoring, and other means to challenge gender norms and encourage girls to choose the path they want.

More information