Why So Few?



At Hong Kong International School (HKIS), I noticed that there was a significant divide in the gender binary in terms of course selection. Most of the high level STEM courses are dominated by men, women making up only a small fraction of each of these classes. After noticing the divide in our school’s AP Calculus BC classes, I began to see it more and more. I noticed that the divide was present not only in high level math courses, but also other high level science courses specifically AP physics and computer science classes.

I also noticed the divide in HKIS’s math and science center. This is a small room adjacent to the math department. Students can sign up to be tutors at the math and science center to help answer questions for other students. My locker is across from the center however, I have only ever seen at most one girl tutoring in the center, and about five to six other boys tutoring. I wanted to find out more about the divide in HKIS specifically, why the divide between genders is occurring, and propose ways to help integrate more women into STEM courses.


In some societies many people believe that men are better than women at math. In fact, many believe the difference is biological, meaning it is somehow connected to the Y chromosome. The gender stereotype that women are associated with language and arts subjects and that men are associated with math and science subjects has been deeply ingrained in people’s minds, and has “cross-cultural validity” (Masnick, 2016). Various studies on the issue have demonstrated that the lack of women in STEM comes from stereotypes about gender and science and math. Studies released on The New York Times showed that there is no connection between gender and math before the age of 7, demonstrating that math and science ability are not genetic (Wade, 2013). Instead, from a young age, men and women internalize the idea that men are better than women at math.Because of this mindset, young women underestimate their science competence significantly more than their male peers.


Common biases are pushing women out of STEM, for example people are much more likely to assume that men are better than women in STEM, so women need to prove their competency much more frequently than men despite previous success. In 2012 a randomized, double-blind study was conducted, the science faculty at multiple research based universities were given the application materials of a made up student with either a feminine or masculine name randomly assigned. Despite reading the same application files, the faculty who had been given a masculine name rather than a feminine name determined the applicant was significantly more intelligent (Williams, 2016).

This bias in STEM fields begins at a very young age, so it is important to acknowledge and dissipate these stereotypes. High school is a specifically important time in deciding whether or not a student will pursue a career in STEM, as this is when they choose their college major. “The choice to pursue STEM fields is affected by math and science related interest and self-assessment, math and science completed during high school” (Wang, 2013).  People often associate STEM with a specific image, so many girls think they don’t belong in STEM because they don’t fit that stereotypical image (Datta, 2016). In order to get more young women involved in math and science, they should be encouraged and supported from a young age.



In order to learn of the extent of the divide, I examined the members lists for specific high level math and science courses, which are generally preferred by men at my school including AP calculus BC, AP physics I, AP physics C, and AP computer science. Then, I gathered information on the amount of men and women in each class. Next, I surveyed a random sample of 52 students (33 girls and 19 boys) at HKIS, asking five different yes or no questions,  to learn more about student perceptions of the issue. The results are shown in graphs below.


Survey Questions: 

  1. Do you believe HKIS allows you to work to the best of your ability?
  2.  Do you think your gender has ever negatively impacted your learning experience?
  3.  Have you ever received unequal treatment based on gender by teachers?
  4. Have you ever received prejudice in terms of academics from other students? (e.g. someone has insinuated you are not as intelligent because of your gender)
  5. Do you think that there is gender inequality in terms of academics at HKIS?



The results from the survey demonstrated that for the most part people do not seem to think that there is a problem with gender in equality in terms of academics at the workplace. More women than men felt that HKIS allows them to work to the best of their ability, however this could be due to other factors as well as the sample size is fairly small. Moreover a few more girls than boys felt that their gender had negatively influenced their learning experience, but the numbers were very low. The issue seems to lie in the interactions between students. Around 24% of the girls (8 out of 33) who responded to the survey felt that they had received prejudice in terms of academics from other students in the past, whereas only 11% of men (2 out of 19) had experienced this. Additionally the issue seems to have gone largely unnoticed, although many classes to demonstrate that there are significantly fewer female students in high level STEM classes, most students do not feel that there is inequality in terms of academics at HKIS.



Relevance: I chose to interview female students at my school who I thought would be able to reveal more about the experiences girls have at HKIS, and what types of factors influence female students’ course selections. The students I interviewed gave interesting insights on how women at HKIS perceive gender discrimination in the community.


Do you think there is any form of gender inequality in terms of academics at HKIS? If so what does it look like to you?

P: I wouldn’t say that there is gender inequality in terms of academics at HKIS. I think that all of the students get the same chances to perform in every subject. However, males tend to dominate the STEM courses. I don’t know if it is because girls are afraid to put themselves out there or if it is because society has told them they are not as good at STEM classes, but guys are definitely over represented in the math and science center at our schools as well as in higher level STEM classes.

S: I think for the most part, HKIS is a gender equal community. Teachers typically provide men and women with equal academic opportunities, and treat men and women equally in the classroom. However I think that the idea that men are somehow inherently better than women in STEM is ingrained people’s minds, although I don’t know the source of the misconception, I do know that it can be easily transferred. For this reason I think that it is particularly important for school communities, especially teachers to encourage their female students to get involved in STEM.

For me personally, I have always been interested in math and science, however I remember telling a previous teacher of mine that I was interested in majoring in chemistry and they replied saying “Well, you never know.” Although i’m sure wasn’t intended to discourage me from STEM, her lack of encouragement, and the implication that I wouldn’t actually major in chemistry really lowered my self esteem.

Do you think you have felt pressure from your family, friends, HKIS community, or society to take or not take certain classes? Explain.

P: Not really, I would say that I was slightly more encouraged to take science classes because that was what my friends and I were interested in. I also think that people tend to believe that others are “smarter” if they are heavily involved in STEM classes, and because that is important to me, I enrolled myself in those types of courses.

S: I think because I showed an interest in math and science at a young age, I set the expectation for my family and myself that I would take more math and science oriented courses. I think I’ve always felt pressure to take more advanced level courses, even from elementary school. Like I said before, I think I set high expectation for myself from a young age. In kindergarten I was selected to join my school’s talented and gifted programme, and tested into all of my schools offered advanced courses. I definitely felt pressure to keep up with the high expectations I had set for myself, in middle school this wasn’t much of an issue because everyone pretty much took the same courses, but I definitely felt pressure to take more advanced math and science courses in high school.


What piqued your interest in math and science or what turned you off from math and science courses?

P: I became interested in math and science when I was in middle school. My best friend and I both liked science and, honestly, I wanted to have more things in common with her. I started spending more time studying chemistry and biology and, after doing that, I realized I actually did like those topics. I was also really interested in becoming a veterinarian and I knew that I would have to have a strong science background. In HS, I took honors and AP science and math classes because, 1: I liked math and science, and 2: I thought it might help me with getting into college.

S: I’ve been interested in math and science since I was a little kid. My grandmother worked in a science museum when I was younger, so every time I visited my dad’s parents, which was a lot, we would go to the museum. My dad is also very math and science oriented and majored in engineering in college, so I have had a lot of exposure to STEM from a young age. Now, I take math and science classes because I find them really fascinating, although I’m not sure if I would have the same interest if I hadn’t been exposed to and encouraged to explore STEM topics when I was younger. 

Do you feel pressure to perform better in math and science classes because of your gender?


P: Yes, sometimes. I feel like I have to prove myself. I think there is an assumption that girls, especially those who don’t look like a stereotypical math or science “nerd,” won’t be as good at math and science as their male counterparts. I wanted to make sure that I could show that I was as capable, or even more capable, than my male classmates so that they would view me as an equal, and therefore respect me more. At HKIS especially, being smart and good at school seems crucial and I want to be viewed favorably so it always seemed like being smart was important.

S: Definitely. I think because there is this misconception that men are better than women at math and science, I’ve felt the need to prove that it’s not true, or if it is true that I am the exception. I think especially as a caucasian female living in Hong Kong, where I feel the idea that men are more intelligent than women is much more common, I constantly have to perform to the best of my ability in order to be considered intelligent. In contrast for many of my male counterparts, it is automatically assumed, and they have to perform quite badly in order for the perception people have of them to be altered.

Call To Action: 

Tell About Your Own Experience:



Works Cited:

Datta, Merrilyn. “I Belong Here: 3 Ways to Attract More Women to STEM.” Entrepreneur. N.p., 06 May 2016. Web. Mar. 2017.

Masnick, A. M., S. S. Valenti, B. D. Cox, and C. J. Osman. Adolescents’ and Emerging Adults’ Implicit Attitudes about STEM Careers 1st ser. 27           (2016): 40-58. Institution of Education Sciences. Science Education International, 2016. Web. Mar. 2017.

Wade, Lisa. “The Truth About Gender and Math.” The Society Pages. N.p., 7 Mar. 2013. Web. Mar. 2017.

Williams, Joan C. “The 5 Biases Pushing Women Out of STEM.” Harvard Business Review. N.p., 30 Aug. 2016. Web. Mar. 2017.


Share this project