Girls good at math half as likely to study science or math at university

Women are avoiding some of the most lucrative degrees

Young Canadian women who are good at math in high school are half as likely as young men who excel in the subject to choose math-heavy STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and computer science) in university, according to a new analysis by Statistics Canada.

One measure considered was the Programme for International Student Assessment’s standardized exam. StatsCan observed that only 23% of Canadian 15-year-old girls who scored in the top three of six categories on the math section of the recent PISA test ended up taking STEM compared to 46% of boys in the top three. Among top performing females, 48% chose social sciences.

Another measure they looked at was high school grades. Among students with marks in the 80% to 89% range, 52% of boys chose a STEM program in university compared to only 22% of girls who were just as highly graded. Among girls who had 90% or above in high school, only 41% chose STEM compared to 61% of boys with marks in that range. The pattern held true for low marks too.

Lack of self-confidence among females doesn’t explain the difference, according to StatsCan: “Among university-bound students who considered their mathematics skills as “excellent”, 66% of males chose a STEM program compared with 47% of females. Among those who considered their mathematical abilities as “good”, 36% of males and 15% of females chose a STEM program.”

StatsCan points out that women were especially likely to avoid engineering, where they made up only 23% of graduates in 2011, and mathematics and computer science, where they made up 30% of graduates. That means many females are missing out on two fields with some of the best job prospects. According to the Ontario Graduate Survey, 2010 computer science graduates had average salaries of $63,044 two years after graduation, up $5,050 over three years earlier. Engineering graduates averaged $61,884, up $2,032. Meanwhile, the average salary for new social sciences graduates—more than two-thirds of whom are women—was $42,585, a drop of $798.

Click to see how employment rates and average salaries are changing for new graduates