STEM occupations are different – just like women

Why general concepts to increase women's interest in STEM occupations are not sufficient

Inga Schad-Dankwart, Heike Krämer, Stephanie Conein

The question of how to increase the proportion of women in STEM occupations has been discussed for many years. Frequently, however, no distinction is drawn between individual STEM occupations. Closer examination reveals differences. Whereas some of the occupations actually do display a very low proportion of women, female representation in other STEM occupations is even above 50 percent. What makes some of these occupations attractive to women? And why are other occupations still rarely chosen despite having similar contents? These questions were investigated as part of the BIBB project “Women choose STEM”.

STEM occupations only interest men – a fallacy?

The low proportion of women in STEM occupations – i.e. in occupations that can be thematically assigned to the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics – has been discussed for many years in science, politics and practice. Although there was a slight increase of 9.1 percentage points in the proportion of women in these occupations from 1993 to 2017 (cf. Bundesagentur für Arbeit 2019), this has since stagnated at a low level (29.3 %). In dual training occupations that can be assigned to the STEM fields, the proportion of women has been at only 11.2 percent for years (Bundesagentur für Arbeit 2019). Particularly in view of the shortage of skilled workers in these occupations (Bußmann 2015), the question arises as to how women could be recruited for STEM occupations .

Countless initiatives, from early childhood education, to primary and secondary education to vocational orientation1, are targeted precisely at this problem, but do not show any resounding success (cf. Hausmann/Kleinert 2014).

What most initiatives have in common is that they focus on increasing women's general interest in STEM occupations, thus treating the occupations as a homogeneous set. However, a more detailed look at the dual training occupations shows that the selecting behaviour of women differs vastly (cf. also Kroll 2017). For example, the proportion of women in newly concluded training contracts (2019) for the training occupation of chemical laboratory technician is 54.6 percent, while it is just 14 percent for chemical technicians. This research project therefore addresses the question: What makes some STEM occupations attractive to women and why are others rarely chosen by women?

Research design, data basis and methodology

To answer the question, a comparative analysis of occupational pairs from the fields of media2, computer science, science and technology was conducted. The pairs were chosen in such a way that occupations with a low proportion of women and those with a higher proportion from the respective sector were contrasted. Furthermore, the occupation of pharmacist in the field of chemistry was used for comparison in addition to the occupational pair, as it stands out among the occupations with a focus on production due to its high proportion of women. Table 1 provides an overview of the selected occupations.

Table 1: Overview of selected and analysed occupations
Assignment to STEM Training occupation Newly concluded contracts 2019 in total Proportion of women-only newly concluded contracts
Media technology Print media technologist (production occupation) 708 16.9%
Designer of digital and print media 2,808 61.3%
Computer science IT specialist specialising in system integration 9,189 6.1%
IT system manager 1,440 13.5%
Sciences Chemical technician (production occupation) 2,289 14.0 %
Pharmaceutical technician (production occupation) 306 53.9%
Chemical laboratory technician 1,659 54.6%
Engineering Milling machine operator* (production occupation) 6,057 5.6%
Industrial mechanic* (production occupation) 12,615 6.4%
Toolmaker* (production occupation) 2,739 7.8%
Technical product designer 2,505 34.1%

* Together, the professions are referred to as workshop professions and compared to the technical product designer as complementary professions.

Source: DAZUBI 2021


The central data collection instrument of the project were qualitative interviews with a total of 120 trainees (two male and 9-13 female trainees per occupation) of the occupations concerned, as well as additional interviews with at least two female professionals per occupation. All interviewees were interviewed about their choice of occupation; first in person (before March 2020) and then, due to thecoronavirus pandemic, by telephone. Relevant topics and questions were derived against the background of well-known occupational choice theories (cf. Gottfredson 1981; Super 1957; Ginsberg et al. 1951). Central to this was Gottfredson's theory, which describes career choice as a processs of fitting ideas and perceptions of occupations with one's own self-concept (interests, gender ascription, etc.).

The interviews began with a narrative section in which the personal path to the training occupation was discussed in detail. This was followed by a semi-structured section in which some factors relevant to the choice of occupation were examined again in more detail. In this section, previous professional experience and further professional plans were also explained. The knowledge of other occupations in the respective occupational field and the reasons why the trainees and skilled workers did not choose these occupations were also investigated. The interviews were recorded, transcribed and then analysed by means of qualitative content analysis according to Mayring (1991; 2015) using MAXQDA software.

Similarities and differences

If one compares the motives named by the trainees that favoured their STEM career choice, at first glance similar factors can be identified for all respondents. It can be seen, for example, that they were often guided by their personal interests, which are predominantly in the STEM field. These interests, in turn, are often shaped by their respective socialisation. It is also striking that the decisive career decision was made in particular on the basis of practical experience in the context of company internships or open days. It is interesting to note, however, that on closer inspection the factors influencing the choice of occupation differ in their intensity and expression between the respective complementary occupations.

Personal interests

The majority of all respondents showed a clear interest in science and technology across all occupations. In particular, this is reflected in their academic strengths or choice of subjects at school.

“I have always been more interested in mathematics, I did an advanced maths class and was rather fond of it anyway.” (Chemical laboratory technician, Trainee_1)3 
“Because I had advanced technology classes and maths at school, so I was quite science-oriented.” (Industrial mechanic, apprentice_27)4

However, a closer look reveals a significant difference in the STEM interest of the women interviewed. 

In particular, those women who work in production occupations (all occupations that are carried out in production or factory halls) with particularly low proportions of women also have an interest in science and technology, but the focus of interest is on manual and practical activities. Well over half of the women from production occupations make this clear in their narratives:

“Helping my father with manual work. So I just liked to be involved. And that also interested me.” (Chemical technician, apprentice_12)5
“I knew that I had a talent for handiwork. I knew that I could do a lot at home on my own, from hanging and connecting lamps to wallpapering and all kinds of things. There’s no shyness there. I just try things out.” (Print media technologist, apprentice_4)6 

The interest in practical work can then logically also be found in the reasons for the choice of occupation.

“I think my training is better because I also do practical work, I see the drawings and then I have the parts with me and then I have to assemble them (...)”. (Industrial mechanic, trainee_27)7

It can thus be seen that the interests underlying the choice of occupation also differ between members of STEM occupations with a high proportion of women and those with a low proportion – despite all the similarities. 

Practical experience and role models

Even if the interests of the interviewed women partly indicate the professional direction early and clearly, it is noticeable, especially in the case of women who work in a production occupation with a low proportion of women, that it is often only through practical experience within the framework of company internships or taster days that interest in the occupation is awakened or increased.

“I was able to get a glimpse of the professions and machining mechanic was the one where I said, yes, this is something for me. And I really enjoy my job.” (Milling machine operator, apprentice_18)8

It is noticeable that especially women from technical production professions also appreciate the opportunity to exchange ideas with women already working in this profession.

“I talked to a few girls and asked them what they were doing here and whether they liked it (...) and that really helped me to think about whether this was the right path for me.” (Milling machine operator, apprentice_16)9

Just like the women from technical production professions, technical product designers mention the importance of practical experience for their career choice, but not a word about the necessary exchange with other women from the same profession.

General conditions and workplace

The differences between members of STEM occupations with a high and low proportion of women are particularly visible in the demands they make on the working environment and working conditions. In the chemical professions studied, for example, it is evident that chemical laboratory assistants and pharmaceutical assistants (professions with a high proportion of women) value a quiet, clean and structured working environment. Some respondents even cite this as a reason for deciding against the related production occupation.

“Q: Why did you not want to become a chemical technician? What makes it different from a pharmaceutical technician?”
B: “(...) And it is also very unclean there. So it's actually something completely different. Yes, production is the same, but the way of working is completely different. So in the pharmacist profession you are cleaner, you work in a structured way”.
(Pharmaceutical technician, trainee_7)10

On the other hand, female chemical technicians, a minority in their profession, set other priorities. They emphasise good pay and the associated financial independence, which apparently played a role in their choice of profession. In part, the comments also go in an emancipatory direction:

“Financial security and being grounded. Independence. Many women are dependent on their husbands. That's not for me at all. I don't want that. And I'm more for independence, exactly, and that's why I chose this job.” (Chemical technician, apprentice_4)11

Differences in women’s demands on their workplace are also evident in the technical professions and the media professions. While the overwhelming majority of technical product designersand digital and print media designers clearly state that they prefer working in an office, almost all of the women interviewed who work in production emphasise that working in an office is precisely what they do not want.

“So, when I finished school, I knew straight away that I didn't want to work in an office, because that's just not for me”. (Milling machine operator, apprentice_26)12

It can thus be seen that women have different priorities in terms of their demands on the workplace and working conditions. Differences between STEM professions with a high proportion of women and those with a low proportion of women become clear.

The tone makes the difference

One of the most prominent differences between women in STEM occupations with a markedly lower proportion of women is both in the way they are treated and in their perception of the tone of interaction in the workplace.

“The tone of interaction is very different. I'll put it this way: as a woman, there are always two ways, or three. But the third is more of a utopia. The first is: as a woman, men handle you with kid gloves in a job like this. And the second is: like an idiot. And the third is exactly right: like any other human being. And that is the absolute rarest thing.” (Media technologist, trainee_1)13

Some of the interviewees say they have developed resilience over time, others put it down to their own character, which they say makes them suitable for this working atmosphere and which they often describe as rather unfeminine:

“Well, I have already changed in recent years (...). You just can't let it get to you, because some of the things they say are below the belt, some of them just don't realise what they've said (...)”. (Industrial mechanic, skilled worker_29)14
"You have to, especially because it is still definitely a male domain, you have to grow a bit of a thick skin, or in my case I already had it because I have many cousins, so I grew up with boys.” (Chemical technician, apprentice_7)15

While resilience and assertiveness are then also logically the personal qualities most frequently named by women in STEM occupations with a low proportion of women as having relevance for their daily work, women from STEM occupations with a high proportion of women tend to emphasise qualities such as the ability to work in a team, accuracy or communication skills. For them, a rough tone is sometimes a reason why the respective complementary occupation would not be considered as an alternative.

“[...] down in production or just in manufacturing, however, [...] there is rather a rough atmosphere. And, yes, I think it is very daunting for a woman, because the men do look at you a bit [...]” (Technical product designer, skilled worker_7).16

What can be done?

If we now return to the initial question of what makes some STEM occupations attractive to women and others not, we first find that women who choose a STEM occupation with a high proportion of women differ from those in a STEM occupation with a low proportion of women in their interests, demands on the workplace and also in their ability to tolerate a harsh tone. On the other hand, the content of the professions, especially the knowledge relevant to their practice, hardly plays a role. What does this mean for the measures that need to be taken to increase the proportion of women in occupations that have so far been less attractive to women?

The first thing to note is that a general promotion of STEM interest among girls, as is currently being pursued in numerous projects, offers no solution for the problem at hand. Most of the interviewees are interested in science and technology and also show great similarities in terms of childhood experiences. It would be more beneficial to look in a first step at what special interests and demands women have in the professions that have rarely been chosen so far, in order to then promote them early on in a second step. Likewise, targeted advertising for the professions should take place according to these interests and demands. For example, with regard to chemical technician or industrial mechanic training, not only would women's interest in science and technology have to be aroused, but in particular the enjoyment of practical work would also have to be emphasised, because this is precisely what distinguishes women in STEM occupations that are based in production from women in STEM occupations with a high proportion of women.

It will be difficult to deal with the important factor of “tone at work”. As gender awareness is raised, fewer women will be willing to work under these conditions in the future. Sensitisation could bring about a more appreciative tone on the part of men. Here, it should be asked whether targeted educational measures on the part of companies and associations could lead to a more professional way of dealing with women, which would ultimately also benefit men in the workplace. However, no such projects are known at present.

In summary, it can be stated that an increase in the proportion of women in STEM occupations, which have rarely been chosen so far, requires that conditional factors outside the field of science and technology are recognised, named and taken into account when addressing young women. This requires a differentiated view of the occupations.

  • 1

    For an overiew see komm-mach-mint.de

  • 2

    Since there is no suitable pair of occupations related to mathematics in the dual system, a pair from the media sector was used for the study.

  • 3

    Translation from the German original: “Also mir lag schon immer eher so das Mathematische, ich hatte auch Mathe-LK und war da eh eher angetan von.” (Chemielaborantin, Auszubildende_1)

  • 4

    German original: “Weil ich auch in der Schule Technik-LK hatte und Mathe, also ziemlich naturwissenschaftlich orientiert.” (Industriemechanikerin, Auszubildende_27)

  • 5

    German original: “Dem Vater bei dem Handwerklichen helfen. Also da war ich halt gerne mit dabei. Und das hat mich auch interessiert.” (Chemikantin, Auszubildende_12)

  • 6

    German original: “Ich wusste, dass ich handwerklich begabt bin. Ich wusste, dass ich viel zu Hause alleine meistern kann, von Lampe anhängen und anschließen bis tapezieren und alles Mögliche machen. Da gibt es keine Scheu. Ich probiere einfach aus.” (Medientechnologin Druck, Auszubildende_4)

  • 7

    German original: “Also ich finde meine Ausbildung halt besser, weil ich auch das Praktische anwende, also ich sehe die Zeichnungen und habe dann auch die Teile bei mir liegen und muss sie dann zusammenbauen (…)”. (Industriemechanikerin, Auszubildende_27)

  • 8

    German original: “Da konnte ich halt einblicken also in die Berufe und Zerspanungsmechaniker war so das, wo ich gesagt habe, ja, das ist etwas für mich. Und ich habe auch sehr Spaß dran, an meinem Beruf.” (Zerspanungsmechanikerin, Auszubildende_18)

  • 9

    German original: “Da habe ich dann mal ein bisschen mit ein paar Mädchen auch gequatscht gehabt und mal gefragt, was sie hier so machen und ob das denen auch gefällt (…) das hat dann halt wirklich noch mal so geholfen, dass man da drüber mal nachdenkt, ob das dann doch der Weg für einen ist.” (Zerspanungsmechanikerin, Auszubildende_16)

  • 10

    German original: “F: Warum wollten Sie nicht Chemikantin werden? Was ist da anders als bei der Pharmakantin? B: (…) Und das ist auch sehr unsauber da. Also etwas ganz anderes eigentlich. Genau, Produktion ist gleich, aber die Arbeitsweise ist ganz anders. Also im Pharmakantenberuf ist man halt eher sauber, arbeitet strukturiert.” (Pharmakantin, Auszubildende_7)

  • 11

    German original: “Finanziell absichern und bodenständig bleiben. Unabhängigkeit. Sehr viele Frauen sind abhängig von ihrem Mann. Das ist gar nichts für mich. Ich will das nicht. Und ich bin eher für Unabhängigkeit, genau, und deswegen habe ich auch diesen Job ausgewählt.” (Chemikantin, Auszubildende_4)

  • 12

    German original: “Also, als ich meine Schule beendet habe, ich wusste schon direkt, dass ich nicht ins Büro möchte, weil das einfach nichts für mich ist.” (Zerspanungsmechanikerin, Auszubildende_26)

  • 13

    German original: “Der Umgang ist sehr unterschiedlich. Ich sage mal so: Es gibt als Frau immer zwei Wege, beziehungsweise drei. Der dritte ist aber eher so eine Utopie. Der erste ist: Als Frau wird man von Männern in so einem Beruf behandelt wie ein rohes Ei. Und der zweite ist: wie ein Idiot. Und der dritte ist genau richtig: wie jeder andere Mensch. Und das ist das absolut Seltenste.” (Medientechnologin, Auszubildende_1)

  • 14

    German original: “Also ich habe mich schon in den letzten Jahren verändert (…). Man darf es einfach nicht an sich ranlassen, weil manche Sprüche sind auch unter der Gürtellinie, manche merken es auch einfach nicht, was sie gesagt haben (…).” (Industriemechanikerin, Fachkraft_29)

  • 15

    German original: “Man muss, besonders, weil es noch eine absolute Männerdomäne ja auch ist, muss man sich ein bisschen ein dickes Fell wachsen lassen, oder in meinem Fall hatte ich es schon, weil ich viele Cousins habe, also mit Jungs aufgewachsen bin.” (Chemikantin, Auszubildende_7)

  • 16

    German original: “[…] unten in der Produktion oder halt gerade so in der Fertigung, wie auch immer, […] doch eher ein rauer Umgang herrscht. Und, ja, ich glaube, also es ist schon sehr abschreckend für eine Frau, weil man wird dann schon ein bisschen angeguckt von den Männern […]” (Technische Produktdesignerin, Fachkraft_7)


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(All links: status 24/11/2021)

Reseacher at BIBB

Reseacher at BIBB

Reseacher at BIBB


Translation from the German original (published in BWP 4/2021)