It all stems from STEM
Author: Tamar Friedman Wilson

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Both in Israel and worldwide, STEM studies (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) are associated with in-demand professions and higher wages in the labor market. Yet women continue to be underrepresented in these fields. In honor of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we took a closer look at trends among women and girls in STEM fields in Israel.

By the time students in Israel reach high school, there are major gaps between boys and girls both in terms of math achievements (though gaps in mathematical achievements actually emerge as early as primary school) and in students’ choice of study major. While, in general, girls do better on the bagrut (matriculation) exams, boys score higher than girls on the math bagrut at all levels. In addition, girls make up over 80% of the high school students majoring in subjects like literature and art, but only about 35% of students majoring in computer science and physics.

One particularly worrying phenomenon is the lack of high technological majors available to religious girls studying in the State-religious education system, where boys and girls study separately. While single-sex education generally has a great benefit for girls, the gender separation in this case results in many of the girls’ schools not offering high technological study majors. In fact, of the 105 religious girls’ high schools in Israel, only 19 of them offer tracks that teach subjects related to engineering and technology – that is; 18% of schools, as compared to 48% in all other non-Haredi schools. One possibility for increasing the options open to these girls is combining technological classes between a number of religious schools.

An area of the population where there has been major progress in girls studying STEM subjects in high school is in the Arab Israeli school system. Of the Arab Israeli students studying the highest level of math, almost two-thirds are girls, while only 45% of their Jewish peers are girls. Also, over 70% of Arab Israeli girls who qualify for a matriculation certificate studied in a science major track, while this is only true for about 40% of Jewish girls qualifying for a matriculation certificate. However, despite these trends and the increased enrollment of Arab Israeli women in higher education, Arab Israeli women do not continue on to study STEM majors in higher education at high rates and, rather, a particularly high share of women in this sector pursue academic degrees in the field of education. Therefore, studying STEM subjects in high school is not necessarily translating into employment in STEM fields for Arab Israeli women.

Differences in the majors that men and women study both in high school and higher education have broader implications as well. Israel has a gender wage gap of over 30%, and 14% of that gap can be explained by differences in the occupations pursued by men and women. Even among female graduates with a degree in computer science, a relatively high percentage of women go into teaching or other industries rather than more lucrative positions available in their field of study, such as programming.

So what can be done?

Given these findings, it is important to raise awareness about the impact that choice of academic field has on wages. Additionally, there is a need to promote programs that encourage women who are interested in STEM subjects to study them at a high level, beginning from an early age.

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