For nerds only? What keeps women away from STEM professions

Gender differences in preferences and abilities cannot sufficiently explain why female engineers and male primary school teachers remain so rare. A new approach therefore examines the extent to which assumptions about whether or not an occupation suits you can explain this persistent gender segregation.

Growing up means making decisions: What career do I want to pursue, which apprenticeship should I apply for, which field of study shall I enroll for? Interestingly, there are still marked gender differences when it comes to choosing a career, although such differences have decreased massively in many other areas, such as pay. In 2020, for example, out of 100 master’s degree certificates in the field of mechanical and electrical engineering, 82 were awarded to men and only 18 to women.

So why do women not choose engineering and IT careers more often, even though demand for human resources and salaries in that sector are high? To answer this question, it is important to understand how career choices are made: On the one hand, young people compare their personal preferences with their abilities, although they do not necessarily accurately assess the latter. On the other, they have certain ideas about a particular profession.

Desires for career and work-life balance have converged

Research to date has mainly investigated the role of gender differences in preferences and abilities. It has often been argued that men’s greater preference for income and careers and women’s desire to reconcile work and family life may explain these differences in career choices. However, a meta-analysis from 2000 shows that these differences in preferences have declined massively – in part because the role of women in society has changed and the overall work-life balance has improved.

“Our ideas about professions are often not based on facts, but rather on cliché depictions in the media.”

Benita Combet

Another explanation is that women are inferior to men in mathematical abilities. However, several meta-studies show that, on average, there are hardly any gender-specific differences. In addition, the number of exceptionally mathematically talented individuals varies according to cultural context and can change rapidly within a very short period of time. Research results also show that although female students have similarly good math grades as their male peers, they often underestimate their abilities because stereotypes tend to attribute mathematical and analytical abilities to men. As a result, schoolgirls are generally less interested in advanced math, programming and similar subjects, although this might give them a first insight into STEM careers.

The social construction of occupations

So what is stopping women who are both talented at and interested in math from choosing a STEM profession? Recent research suggests that ideas about whether a job suits you or not and how you perceive your potential future work colleagues also play a role. However, our ideas about professions are often not based on facts, but rather on stereotypical depictions in the media. A classic example is the TV series “The Big Bang Theory”, in which scientists and engineers are portrayed as absolute nerds with few social skills and relatively unpopular hobbies such as comics, science fiction and role-playing, but all the more intellectual brilliance.

This can unsettle women who do not identify with the nerd stereotype: Do I fit into an environment like this, do I want to become one too? On the one hand, women are stereotypically associated with characteristics such as caring, hard work (but not necessarily intelligence) and social competence – the exact opposite of nerds. On the other, there are persistent but incorrect ideas about work in STEM professions, for example that people rarely work with other people, that the work is not very creative, and that the results of the work do not have a direct benefit for society.

In summary, this new research shows that the (self-assessed) suitability with the professional culture is an important aspect when it comes to career choice (provided the necessary skills and interests are present).

Real experiences instead of clichés

So what can we do to prevent young people from being guided by false ideas when choosing a career? It is certainly important to provide accurate information and enable insights into the real world of work and study. For example, existing information campaigns by universities could be increasingly integrated into school teaching in order to break the stereotypical image of the nerdy engineer working in isolation on a socially irrelevant niche topic.


  • Cheryan et al. (2015): Cultural stereotypes as ­gatekeepers. Increasing girls’ interest in computer science and engineering by diversifying stereo­types. Frontiers in Psychology.
  • Hyde und Mertz (2009): Gender, culture, and ­mathematics performance. PNAS.
  • Konrad et al. (2000): Sex Differences and ­Simi­la­rities in Job Attribute Preferences. A Meta-­Analysis. Psychological Bulletin.

About the person

Bild: zvg

Benita Combet

is an SNSF Ambizione recipient and works at the Department of Sociology at the University of Zurich, where she investigates the extent to which gender and social background create educational and gender inequality. She studied and obtained her doctorate at the University of Bern. She is a member of the “Education, Professionals and Diversity” committee of digitalswitzerland.

Decision by virtue of birth

Benita Combet describes being born as a child to Swiss parents and thus enjoying so many undeserved privileges and opportunities for developmentas the “best decision of her life”.

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