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High School Choices and the Gender Gap in STEM


  • David Card

    (Department of Economics, University of California, Berkeley; and National Bureau of Economic Research)

  • A. Abigail Payne

    () (Melbourne Institute: Applied Economic & Social Research and Department of Economics, The University of Melbourne; and Department of Economics, McMaster University)


Women who graduate from university are less likely than men to specialize in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM). We use detailed administrative data for a recent cohort of high school students in Ontario, Canada, combined with data from the province's university admission system to analyze the dynamic process leading to this gap. We show that entry to STEM programs is mediated through an index of STEM readiness based on end-ofhigh-school courses in math and science. Most of the gender gap in STEM entry can be traced to differences in the rate of STEM readiness; less than a fifth is due to differences in the choice of major conditional on readiness. We then use high school course data to decompose the gap in STEM readiness among university entrants into two channels: one reflecting the gender gap in the fraction of high school students with the necessary prerequisites to enter STEM, and a second arising from differences in the fractions of females and males who enter university. The gender gap in the fraction of students with STEM prerequisites is small. The main factor is the lower university entry rate by men -- a difference that is due to the lower fraction of non-science oriented males who complete enough advanced level courses to qualify for university entry. We conclude that differences in course-taking patterns and preferences for STEM conditional on readiness contribute to male-female differences in the rate of entering STEM, but that the main source of the gap is the lower overall rate of university attendance by men.

Suggested Citation

  • David Card & A. Abigail Payne, 2017. "High School Choices and the Gender Gap in STEM," Melbourne Institute Working Paper Series wp2017n25, Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, The University of Melbourne.
  • Handle: RePEc:iae:iaewps:wp2017n25

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    Cited by:

    1. Delaney, Judith & Devereux, Paul J., 2019. "It's Not Just for Boys! Understanding Gender Differences in STEM," IZA Discussion Papers 12176, Institute of Labor Economics (IZA).
    2. Zuazu Bermejo, Izaskun, 2018. "Cultural Values, Family Decisions and Gender Segregation in Higher Education: Evidence from 26 OECD Economies," IKERLANAK Ikerlanak;2018-107, Universidad del País Vasco - Departamento de Fundamentos del Análisis Económico I.
    3. Michela Carlana, 2019. "Implicit Stereotypes: Evidence from Teachers’ Gender Bias," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 134(3), pages 1163-1224.
    4. Graetz, Georg & Karimi, Arizo, 2019. "Explaining gender gap variation across assessment forms," Working Paper Series 2019:8, IFAU - Institute for Evaluation of Labour Market and Education Policy.
    5. Pierre Mouganie & Yaojing Wang, 2020. "High-Performing Peers and Female STEM Choices in School," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 38(3), pages 805-841.
    6. Hemelt, Steven W. & Lenard, Matthew A., 2020. "Math acceleration in elementary school: Access and effects on student outcomes," Economics of Education Review, Elsevier, vol. 74(C).
    7. Gabi Xuan Jiang, 2018. "Planting the Seeds for Success: Why Women in STEM Don't Stick in The Field," Purdue University Economics Working Papers 1307, Purdue University, Department of Economics.
    8. Di Tommaso, Maria Laura & Contini, Dalit & De Rosa, Dalila & Piazzalunga, Daniela, 2020. "Tackling the Gender Gap in Math with Active Learning Teaching Practices," Department of Economics and Statistics Cognetti de Martiis. Working Papers 202016, University of Turin.
    9. Judith M. Delaney & Paul J. Devereux, 2019. "The Effect of High School Rank in English and Math on College Major Choice," Working Papers 201931, School of Economics, University College Dublin.
    10. Izaskun Zuazu, 2020. "Graduates’ Opium? Cultural Values, Religiosity and Gender Segregation by Field of Study," Social Sciences, MDPI, Open Access Journal, vol. 9(8), pages 1-27, July.
    11. D. Chise & M. Fort & C. Monfardini, 2019. "Scientifico! like Dad: On the Intergenerational Transmission of STEM Education in Italy," Working Papers wp1138, Dipartimento Scienze Economiche, Universita' di Bologna.
    12. Delaney, Judith M. & Devereux, Paul J., 2019. "Understanding gender differences in STEM: Evidence from college applications✰," Economics of Education Review, Elsevier, vol. 72(C), pages 219-238.
    13. Zuazu-Bermejo, Izaskun, 2020. "Graduates’ opium? Cultural values, religiosity and gender segregation by field of study," OSF Preprints yn23j, Center for Open Science.
    14. Razzu, Giovanni & Singleton, Carl & Mitchell, Mark, 2018. "On why gender employment equality in Britain has stalled since the early 1990s," MPRA Paper 87190, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    15. Jamin D. Speer, 2020. "Where the girls are: Examining and explaining the gender gap in the nursing major," Scottish Journal of Political Economy, Scottish Economic Society, vol. 67(3), pages 322-343, July.
    16. Shi, Ying, 2018. "The puzzle of missing female engineers: Academic preparation, ability beliefs, and preferences," Economics of Education Review, Elsevier, vol. 64(C), pages 129-143.
    17. Veronica Minaya, 0. "Do Differential Grading Standards Across Fields Matter for Major Choice? Evidence from a Policy Change in Florida," Research in Higher Education, Springer;Association for Institutional Research, vol. 0, pages 1-23.
    18. Biewen, Martin & Schwerter, Jakob, 2019. "Does More Math in High School Increase the Share of Female STEM Workers? Evidence from a Curriculum Reform," IZA Discussion Papers 12236, Institute of Labor Economics (IZA).
    19. Marcos Agurto & Sandra Buzinsky & Siddharth Hari & Valeria Quevedo & Sudipta Sarangi & Susana Vegas, 2020. "Academic Aptitude Signals and STEM field participation: A Regression Discontinuity Approach," Working Papers 2020-08, Lima School of Economics.

    More about this item


    Post-secondary education; gender; STEM;

    JEL classification:

    • I23 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Education - - - Higher Education; Research Institutions

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