Gendered Selection of STEM Subjects for Matriculation

Melbourne Institute Working Paper No. 10/16

Date: 2016


Moshe Justman
Susan J. Méndez


Women’s under-representation in high-paying jobs in engineering and information technology contributes substantially to the gender wage gap, reflecting similar patterns in higher education. We trace these patterns back to students’ choice of advanced science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects in the final years of secondary school. We find large male majorities in physics, information technology and specialist mathematics; and large female majorities in life sciences and health and human development. The significant mathematical component in male-dominated fields has led many to assume that these patterns are driven by males’ absolute or comparative advantage in mathematics. We show that this is not the case. Linking data on Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) subject choices to standardized test scores in seventh and ninth grades, we find that these patterns remain largely intact when comparing male and female students with similar prior achievement. We find little support for the comparative advantage hypothesis: in all STEM subjects except specialist mathematics students who excel in ninth-grade numeracy and reading choose STEM subjects more frequently than those who excel only in numeracy. We also find that socio-economic disadvantage adversely affects male students’ choice of STEM electives more than it affects female students.

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