Plugging the STEM Pipeline

“We look at science as something very elite, which only a few people can learn. That's just not true. You just have to start early and give kids a foundation. Kids live up, or down, to expectations.” – Mae Jamison, engineer, physicist and astronaut

Our world is powered by innovation, which makes the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) extremely important. For women, however, there are barriers that prevent and discourage them from developing and pursuing interest in the STEM areas. And these barriers often start early in life.

This is reflected in the findings in our new study on gender differences in Hong Kong’s STEM education. Supported by MTR Corporation and led by Dr Anita Chan and Dr Adam Cheung of the Education University of Hong Kong, the research explored the “leaky pipeline” phenomenon to understand why girls were underrepresented in STEM fields and also why they were more likely to drop out than their male counterparts.

Through surveying and interviewing more than 2800 Form 5 students from 43 schools across the city, the study found that both well over half of male and female students choose STEM subjects in the Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) curriculum – 61,8% and 51.8%, respectively. However, the percentage of girls who planned to pursue STEM university majors dropped significantly to 13.9%, which is concerning when contrasted with the 40% of male students who intend to take up STEM majors at university. When asked about their career plans, only 4.1% of female students wanted to enter a STEM-related profession related to STEM, while 17.4% of boys planned to do so – four times more likely than girls.

The findings show that secondary school girls are less likely to take STEM subjects than their male counterparts, and they are also more likely to leak out from the STEM pipeline later in life. There are a variety of reasons, but gender biases, such as beliefs that boys are naturally talented in math while girls have no math sense, and that boys are more logical whereas girls are more emotional, play a major role in discouraging girls’ interest in pursuing STEM studies and careers.

The researchers assert that making STEM-related electives compulsory won’t do much to prevent female students from dropping out. Instead, they call on teachers and parents to challenge negative stereotypes and to make sure there are ordinary female role models in the fields. In addition, as female students are motivated by jobs that they perceive as “meaningful”, everyone - including media, schools, parents, and policymakers - should revamp the image of STEM to make it more “humane” and make the STEM curricula more relevant to students’ life.

The study can be read in full here. This research underscores the work that TWF is engaging in through our Girls Go Tech Programme and other initiatives that we support in the STEM space. We hope that the findings will lead to concerted action among schools, government, companies and the community to help Hong Kong attract and retain female talent in the STEM pipeline.


Written by

The Women's Foundation