Religious girls are studying STEM studies less due to a lack of opportunities


HadasA recent Taub Center study finds that more high school students are enrolling in scientific and technological studies, especially in high technological education – which includes majors such as Bio-Technology and Computer Systems. Skills taught in these tracks are in high demand in high tech and other STEM industries, and gaps in high school may have an impact later on in academia and the labor market.

In general, the percentage of boys in high technological education is higher than that of girls, but there is a significant difference between Arab and Jewish Israelis. The Arab education system experienced the largest increase in the share of students enrolled in high technological education – particularly among girls, who study these subjects at a higher rate than boys.

This is an exceptional trend relative to other OECD countries, and especially interesting given the traditional nature of Arab Israeli society. This will certainly have dramatic implications for the future integration of Arab Israeli women into the labor market.

In Hebrew education, however, gaps between boys and girls are still large. In the State education stream, the share of girls in high technological education is 40% lower than the share of boys. A particularly disturbing finding is that the gap in the State-religious stream is higher than in any other sector – 1 out of every 4 religious boys study in high technological education, compared with fewer than 1 in 10 religious girls. Additionally, the gap has not diminished over the years, as it has in other sectors.

Religious girls come from a more traditional society, but so do Arab Israeli girls who, as noted, study STEM subjects at very high rates. Most religious girls study in single-sex schools, which might, in theory, contribute to more students pursuing scientific subjects (many argue that women’s mathematical achievements improve in a female-only environment).

However, gender segregation seems to limit options for girls; only 18% of religious girls’ high schools offer high technological tracks, compared to 48% of other schools. It is reasonable to assume that there are religious girls who want to study these subjects but do not have the opportunity because no such tracks are offered in their school.

The small share of religious girls in high technological education is part of a broader trend in scientific studies – about 33% of religious girls study science at the five-unit level, compared to 37% in State education and 46% in Arab education.

The phenomenon holds true in subjects with traditionally female majorities, such as biology and chemistry. This seems to be the case both for practical reasons – State-religious schools are relatively small, and therefore the supply of majors is smaller – and due to societal norms and pressures.

It is important to ensure that religious girls are given the chance to study high-level STEM subjects in high school because these fields are associated with labor market opportunities and higher earning potential, and are difficult to study at the academic level without proper preparation in high school.In other words, if religious girls are not given the opportunity to study these subjects in high school, it might be too late by the time they reach academia.

Gender gaps in the labor market are not limited to one sector. In fact, the hourly wage gap is largest in the secular population. Even in Arab Israeli society, where high technological education is majority-female, women are still underrepresented in STEM fields in academia.

Each student should choose a major that interests her, but in the religious Jewish sector we must pay closer attention to societal influences on girls’ choice of major, as well as to technical barriers that do not allow girls to study high-level technological and scientific studies.

The Hebrew version of this article was published in The Marker 

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