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Danish girls are more likely to lose interest in STEM as they get older compared with boys

Eighth grader Mathilde lives in Denmark and is one of thousands of children in the country who are taught science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in school. Like most young women her age, she loves these subjects. Yet Denmark, like most countries in Europe, is facing an increasing skills shortage with companies struggling to recruit enough young people with the right skills in STEM industries. In fact, by 2025, the country is expected to have a shortfall of 6,500 engineering and 3,500 natural science graduates, with a further 19,000 unfilled IT job positions expected by 2030.

The reality is that women are still in the minority when it comes to careers in these fields. In Denmark, only a third of university applicants for STEM related degrees are female. The question is: what is preventing young women from entering into, and cultivating careers, in STEM?

In partnership with Microsoft, The Think Tank DEA embarked on ground-breaking research to analyze male and female attitudes to STEM in Denmark and whether there is a gender-specific perception of these subjects from an early age. DEA asked 3,000 girls and boys (aged either 10-11 or 15-16) to discuss their levels of STEM interest at school, outside of school and in the family. The survey also included 1,500 parents from the older age group and additional qualitative interviews with girls who showed passion for STEM fields of study.

The findings revealed that across the board, there is a steep decline in STEM interest between the ages of 11 and 16. But the decrease is much bigger for girls, dropping by 21 percent within the subjects of biology, chemistry, and math, compared with only 13 percent for boys.

I do not understand why we lack girls in this profession

Interestingly, when it came to the parents, this drop in interest actually matches their expectations. The research found that 54 percent of the parents of boys believe that their son should opt for a technology related program, compared with only 26 per cent of the parents of girls. In addition, 70 percent of parents overall believed boys have greater interest in technology compared with less than one percent who thought the same for girls.

“If you look at the tech industry, you always see men playing computer games or coding […], you do not often see girls. In fact, I do not understand why we lack girls in this profession.” Louis, 15 years old

Having role models and support at home and in the classroom are key drivers for girls wanting to keep studying STEM subjects. Recent research from Microsoft shows the number of girls interested in STEM almost doubles when they have role models compared to those who do not. Girls with role models are also more passionate about STEM subjects and are more likely able to imagine themselves working in STEM.

At Microsoft, we are playing our part by running female-focused programs across the world aimed at increasing interest in STEM and building skills. Our DigiGirlz program gives young women the opportunities to learn about careers in technology, connect with Microsoft employees, and participate in hands-on computer and technology workshops. In Denmark, as well as celebrating the annual Girls Day in Science, we recently hosted a DigiGirlz/MakeWhatsNext event where kids were given the opportunity to try coding, participate in computer science workshops and hear from inspiring women already working in STEM.

Girl smiling at laptop screen

“I think it has been so much fun, and I think the topics are exciting, to focus on the fact that there are not so many girls who choose STEM jobs. We have to remember that it’s not about what I can become as a girl, but what can I become, and look at all the options.” Mathilde, 15 years old

Without women working in STEM fields, which lie at the heart of modern innovation, hundreds of thousands of jobs could go unfilled and this lack of diversity risks limiting future innovation at a national level. That’s why The Think Tank DEA research provides a series of practical steps we can take collectively to sustain young people’s interest in STEM – from making STEM careers and role models more visible in school, to creating gender-neutral environment in classes to help both boys and girls feel engaged.

We all have a responsibility to foster enthusiasm for STEM subjects amongst the next generation of women. To celebrate International Women’s Day this month, we launched a Heads Up game to make female role models more visible and get girls engaged with STEM.  If you have a girl in your life, download the free #MakeWhatsNext game to play!