Why Girls’ School Students are Successful in STEM


A recent study found that girls’ school graduates have higher levels of self-confidence in their science-related skills compared to female graduates of coed schools. Specifically, girls’ school alumnae, when compared to female graduates of coed schools, report greater confidence in their ability to:

  • use technical science skills such as tools, instruments, and techniques;
  • understand scientific concepts;
  • generate a research question;
  • explain the results of a study; and
  • determine how to collect appropriate data.

Based on an analysis of data self-reported by Generation Z students, these findings are in keeping with a report comparing Generation Y students from all-girls versus coed schools. In math and computer skills, girls’ school graduates rate their confidence in their abilities at least 10% higher than their coeducated counterparts. Girls’ school graduates are also three times more likely to consider engineering careers compared to coeducated peers. Spanning two generations, the combined research paints a consistent portrait of a girls’ school graduate who is prepared to excel in STEM studies.

But what’s happening in girls’ schools that lead to these outcomes? Why do girls’ school students show a higher propensity for engagement in STEM?

I was struck by a Harvard Business Review (HBR) article about what differentiates successful women from other women in STEM. The key attributes described in the article are abundant in all-girls schools:

CONFIDENCE: The first strategy noted is to “telegraph confidence.” As the research shows, girls’ school graduates report more confidence in STEM-related skills along with greater self-confidence in their academic performance and intellectual, public speaking, and writing abilities. This combination of skills is critical to a successful STEM career. The HBR article goes on to note, “In STEM, women’s confidence has long been under assault from implications and overt insults that women are less likely to succeed, and even suggestions that ‘innate’ differences between men and women make women less suited for STEM careers.” At girls’ schools, there are no glass ceilings and no assumptions about what girls like or prefer because no one is saying “that subject is for boys” or “that subject is too hard.”

VOICE: Women who succeed in STEM must be able to “speak up when they’re overlooked.” In all-girls learning environments, students are encouraged to use their voice, better preparing them to speak up first in the classroom and later in professional settings. A New York Times article stated, “Academic studies and countless anecdotes make it clear that being interrupted, talked over, shut down or penalized for speaking out is nearly a universal experience for women when they are outnumbered by men.” Yet, girls’ school students are more likely than their female peers at coed schools to experience an environment that welcomes an open and safe exchange of ideas. Nearly 87% of girls’ school students feel their opinions are respected at their school compared to only 58% of girls at coed public schools.

NETWORKS: Successful women in STEM “invest in peer networks” and “build up protégés.” Girls’ schools are educational environments centered on community, collaboration, and mentoring. Girls’ schools understand that positive female role models are essential for girls to grow into confident women. Research shows that not only do female students need mentors, they particularly need female mentors who can model greater diversity in women’s lives today. The overwhelming majority of girls’ school students report higher levels of support from their school administrators, teachers, and fellow students compared to girls at coed schools. Alumnae of girls’ schools are also more likely than coed school graduates to say they frequently tutored other students.

AUTHENTICITY: Bringing their “authentic self” to the job is another trait of women who succeed in STEM. Nearly 89% of girls’ school students, compared to only 72% of females at coed public schools, report they are comfortable being themselves at school, which means they are free to navigate life as their authentic selves.

PURPOSE: Finally, women who thrive in STEM fields understand the relevance of the work they are doing, not just their technical expertise. Girls’ schools know girls are more engaged in learning the “how,” if they also learn the “why.” When trying new things and applying them to what they already know, girls can more clearly see how a particular subject area is relevant to their world and interests. Girls’ schools also understand that young women are driven by their passions and are motivated by the positive social impact of their work.

Globally, women account for less than a third of those employed in scientific research and development. Women also only make up 12% of the board seats in the IT industry across the world. We need more women in STEM taking their seat at the table—be it in the lab or the boardroom—to insure varying perspectives for a more balanced approach to solving our world’s problems. Girls’ schools are leading the way in closing this gender gap by setting-up women with the essential skills and attributes needed to succeed and lead in STEM-related industries.

Megan Murphy, Executive Director, National Coalition of Girls’ Schools

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