Students in a classroom
Photo: Arne Trautmann/Mostphotos


“What we’ve known now for a while now is that girls outperform boys in math-related fields, but they are still not choosing STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) trajectories. These fields often lead to high prestige and high income jobs, but still these highly talented girls are not choosing these fields. And boys are”, said Maaike van der Vleuten, researcher in sociology at Swedish Institute for Social Research (SOFI) at Stockholm University.

She studied whether the reason for this might not be the girls’ absolute ability

how good they are at math – but rather their relative ability: Are they – in general – admittedly better in math than boys but also better in other fields?

“Even if you are good in mathematics, if you’re better in another field, like languages for example, then it’s quite logical based on rational choice that you choose the field you are better at. And since boys are comparatively better in mathematics, it might be more logical for them to choose STEM fields. Because girls are often relatively better in languages compared to mathematics, it might therefore be more rational to choose non-science fields. This relative ability explanation has until now been given little thought in social research”, said Maaike van der Vleuten

Researcher Maaike van der Vleuten in a corridor at Stockholm university
Maaike van der Vleuten, PhD in sociology at the Swedish Institute for Social Research, Stockholm university.
Photo: Daniel Rossetti/SU

In the study, she uses data from the Netherlands, where you already choose a field of study quite early in your school career, at age 15. There are four different trajectories you can choose, and they give you different opportunities for choosing a field of study after secondary education.

“This choice is highly important. If you choose a certain trajectory, you exclude other career paths. If you for example want to become a doctor you need to choose science and health or science and technology already at age 15. If you choose the other two trajectories, it becomes very difficult to study medicine after secondary education” said Maaike van der Vleuten.



Relative ability does not explain gender differences

Maaike van der Vleuten finds large differences between gender in this early choice. Already at age 15, we see that boys are more likely to choose the science and technology trajectory, whereas girls are more likely in the more language-oriented fields. Adolescents more often choose fields they are comparatively better at, but the study also shows that this does not explain gender differences in the choices.

“We can see that relative ability is important. If you are good at math, you choose math fields. But what I find is that this effect does not differ for boys and girls”, she said.

Another component that has a big impact on field of study choices is the family background.

“If you come from a higher educated background, you’re more likely to be better in math. This effect is larger for girls, but it does not explain the gender differences in field of study choices.” said Maaike van der Vleuten.

“To answer what drives differences between boys´ and girls´ field of study choices is not that simple. I don’t think that there is one sole reason for the gender differences” she said.

To explain these kinds of events, Maaike van der Vleuten suggests further research that look at several parameters combined.

“We know that several factors have proven to be important, like gender norms, parents, peers, siblings etc.” said Maaike van der Vleuten.

One crucial take away message from this research is that gender differences start very early, and in this educational system it has a big impact on the educational trajectories of the young students, according to Maaike van der Vleuten.

“This highlights the need of studying factors that shape gender differences at a very early age”.

How the study was carried out

The study uses two waves of data from the Dutch part of the CILS4EU survey. This study follows a representative sample of eight-grades students from adolescence to young adulthood. Adolescents filled in self-completion questionnaires on internalising and externalising problems in their first (age 14-15, grade 8) and second year of secondary education (age 15-16, grade 9).  In both waves, parents also filled in a self-completion questionnaire, which allowed the researched to take into account parental and family characteristics. Relative ability was measured as respondents’ relative achievement in mathematics compared to languages (Dutch and English). As children un upper secondary education in the Netherlands make their trajectory choice at the end of grade 8, the researcher was able to identify their field of study choice in the second wave.


Read more about the research

Van der Vleuten, M. (2021). Gender differences in fields of study. The role of comparative advantage for trajectory choices in upper secondary education. Journal of Education.



Maaike van der Vleuten, researcher in sociologi

Swedish Institute for Social Reseach (SOFI)
Stockholms universitet

Tel: +46(0)8-16 43 61