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Secondary school subjects and gendered STEM enrolment in higher education in Germany, Ireland, and Scotland

Jacob, M., Iannelli, C., Duta, A., & Smyth, E. (2020). Secondary school subjects and gendered STEM enrollment in higher education in Germany, Ireland, and Scotland. International Journal of Comparative Sociology, 61(1), 59-78.

This article examines gender inequality in entering science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) higher education fields of study and the extent to which STEM subject choice in upper secondary education explains gender differences in STEM enrolment in higher education. We adopt a cross-country approach using Germany, Ireland, and Scotland as three case studies. These countries differ in terms of both the degree of subject choice offered in upper secondary education and the relevance for higher education admission of having studied specific school subjects. On one hand, the Scottish education system is characterised by a good deal of flexibility in school subject choices, which leads to large variation between students in the number and types of subjects taken in the final school exams. Given that universities specify particular groups of subjects for admission purposes, this results in certain students being unable to access some subject domains (such as STEM) if they have not taken related subjects at the upper secondary level. On the other hand, in Ireland and Germany secondary school students are more limited in their subject choices due to the existence of compulsory core subjects (e.g. mathematics and, in Germany, also one science). School subject choice also has limited or no formal relevance for higher education entry purposes in these countries. Against the background of these country differences, we addressed the following research questions: 

  1. Do gender differences in enrollment in STEM fields in higher education vary between Scotland, Ireland, and Germany?
  2. Do the three countries vary in the extent to which the school subjects taken matter for gender differences in STEM enrollment?
Types of inequalities

Sources of inequalities: gender and institutional differentiation

Inequalities of outcomes: choice of STEM fields of study in higher education


We conduct regression models for each country separately. We first account for country-specific selection into higher education, that is, different probabilities of enrollment in the three different countries. We do so by applying the two-stage estimation procedure proposed by Heckman (1979).


Using datasets of young people from all three countries, our results indicate a stronger mediation of school subjects for Scotland than in Germany and Ireland and a remarkable gender gap in STEM enrolment in all three countries. We conclude that females studying science subjects within upper secondary education appear to be a necessary but not a sufficient condition to ensure gender equality in progression to STEM fields.

Policy implications

Our results highlight the role of school subjects in later STEM enrollment but also how specialization in school contributes to the gender gap in STEM in higher education. Hence, providing positive STEM experiences in school, in particular to girls who are less likely to voluntarily opt for STEM subjects, might be fruitful in increasing girls’ interest in STEM. In contrast, general interventions not specifically targeted at girls may result in a persistent or even an increase in the gender gap due to higher male enrolments.

For further information contact

Corresponding author: Professor Marita Jacob on marita.jacob@uni-koeln.de

Research Team

Professor Marita Jacob
Dr Francesca Fiori
Senior Research Fellow