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Efforts to close gender interest gap in STEM must be stepped up, Gen Z survey shows

By Athena Jones, CNN

(CNN) — Despite wide efforts to encourage more girls and young women to pursue careers in STEM, a new survey from Gallup and the Walton Family Foundation found Gen Z girls significantly lag behind boys in the level of interest expressed in STEM subjects, suggesting more must be done to close the gender gap.

When members of Gen Z, which the survey defines as people born between 1997 and 2011, “were asked about their interest in occupations related to life and physical science, technology, engineering and math,” just 63% of females said they were very or somewhat interested in at least one of these areas, while 85% of males said the same.

Women make up half the US college-educated workforce, but just 34% of the STEM workforce, according to Gallup. Women remain underrepresented in fast-growing STEM sectors like computer science, Gallup said, even after years of programs and initiatives aimed at boosting girls’ and young women’s participation.

The survey concludes that representation of more women in STEM fields would help reduce the gender pay gap and strengthen the US economy.

The survey found the largest gender gap existed when Gen Zers were asked if they had an interest in careers in engineering and computers/technology with men 28 percentage points more likely than women to express an interest in each of those fields. Men were also 10 percentage points more likely than women to say they are interested in math careers, though both genders showed a similar interest in careers in life and physical science.

The findings are the latest in Gallup’s “Voices of Gen Z” series, which surveys Gen Z on issues ranging from their struggles with mental health and well-being, to their feelings about the future and their concerns about college affordability. The report was based on a Gallup Panel web survey conducted September 11-19 with a sample of 2,006 12- to 26-year-olds across the country.

The report found girls are also more likely to say they are exposed to fewer concepts key to understanding STEM subjects, like computer science and physics, in their middle and high school coursework than their male counterparts.

“The extent to which young people say, ‘I want to pursue STEM in college as a major or as a career’ has a lot to do with what’s going on in the classroom in K-12,” Zach Hrynowski, a Gallup education researcher, explained. “Exposure is something that we see to be really influential.”

Females are nearly 20 percentage points more likely than males to say they are not interested in a STEM career because they don’t think they would be good at it. Males, in contrast, were more likely to cite lack of knowledge about STEM careers, Gallup found. A similar percentage of male and female Gen Zers are about equally likely to say they do not enjoy STEM subjects.

The survey aligns with previous studies that show female students are much less likely than males to express confidence in their ability to learn computer science and to think that it’s important for them to learn, Gallup said.

Mentors Matter

The National Science Foundation estimates 80% of the jobs created in the next decade will require some form of math and science skills.

Hrynowski said giving more girls and young women the chance to experience and learn about STEM subjects – and the women working in STEM – is essential because it allows women to demonstrate to themselves and others their ability to succeed in those subjects.

“Whether it’s underserved or underrepresented groups based on ethnicity, income or gender, having mentors that look like you so that you can imagine yourself in a role is really important,” Hrynowski said. “Seeing more young women in these roles is going to drive more women to pursue them.”

The survey found that “nearly equal percentages of Gen Z males and females said their schools encouraged them to pursue STEM careers, provided opportunities to learn” about those careers and supported participation in STEM-related extracurricular activities.

But, the report concluded, the difference in exposure was likely a product of females being “less inclined to take STEM-related coursework and join extracurricular activities” that prepare them for STEM careers.

More work is needed to increase girls’ exposure to STEM, the report said, and to promote their STEM learning in secondary and post-secondary schooling, remove barriers that keep them from pursuing STEM roles and to bolster the pool of qualified candidates for well-paying, in-demand STEM careers.

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