More women study maths and science in a recession

Economic downturns nudge women into STEM subjects - but no one's sure why.

by Rachel Savage
Last Updated: 24 Aug 2015

It is a truth universally acknowledged that female representation in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects and careers is painfully, stubbornly low. It’s normally blamed on sexist stereotypes drummed in from a young age, so research that found more women opt for maths-heavy degrees during recessions makes for interesting reading.

Both men and women are more likely to choose to study subjects such as engineering and computer science at university, while fleeing arts degrees like sociology, according to a paper published by German research body the Institute for the Study of Labour. So far, so predictable.

But women are more liable to opt for degrees with greater earning potential in a downturn. Looking at American data over 50 years, the study found a 1% increase in the unemployment rate causes a 4.1% ‘reallocation’ in female college students’ choice of majors, compared to 3.2% for men.

The fact that there are more women with the potential and inclination to study technical degrees than pick them in good economic times contradicts the rather boring sexist argument that women aren’t as capable of studying technical degrees as men, as the researchers rightly point out.

But it doesn’t solve the question of why women are more sensitive to economic conditions when picking degrees and careers, something supported by other research. If that is figured out it may help campaigners and policymakers encourage women into scientific subjects more successfully. Eventually, it would nice to not have to target people differently on account of their genders at all, but with women making up just 13% of people in STEM careers we’ve got a long way to go.

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