Traditionally, the Netherlands lag behind other countries in terms of the percentage of girls opting for STEM-study programs (Eurostat, 2009; OECD, 2003). Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union, has carried out an international comparative analysis of students enrolled in tertiary education. Particularly in the case of science, the Netherlands features at the bottom of the scale with just 19% female students in 2009. Also in terms of participation in technology study programmes, the Netherlands is close to last with 16.1%. The under-representation of girls cannot be attributed to differences in performance in STEM related school subjects or skills: girls perform as well as boys, and this is also the case in the Netherlands.
In international research a number of factors leading to the under-representation of girls/women in STEM have been recognized, including girls’ lower self-concepts, non-stimulating learning environments, lack of female role models, stereotyped associations in society about girls/women and STEM, fertility/lifestyle factors, and career preferences of girls and women.
In the Netherlands, students are required to make educational career choices much earlier than in most other countries. Pupils choose a type of education on the transition from primary to secondary education, at the age of just twelve. This is particularly disadvantageous for pupils in preparatory secondary vocational education (VMBO), because they also need to make their next choice for a VET-education very early (two years later) and this choice is already more specifically aimed at a field of study than in senior general secondary education (HAVO) / university preparatory education (VWO); here, the next defining moment occurs three years after the transition from primary to secondary education. Still at this age (14-15) young people are still at the height of their development. This makes it extremely difficult to make decisions about academic and professional careers that will determine a significant part of their lives. It may be even more difficult to make non-traditional choices at this early age, such as girls opting for STEM. Moreover, school career advisers, teachers and parents in the Netherlands are more likely to advise boys to make academic career choices in the direction of STEM than girls, and sometimes even advise girls against such choices. Investing in a long term integrated approach is key order to encourage more female students to opt for STEM subjects. It is important to follow an integrated approach: special activities for girls (including contact with female professionals/role models), teacher training, and a policybased approach to gender mainstreaming. The training Programs are for Teachers and Career Advisers and should be focussed on gender awareness among science teachers, on breaking down stereotyped ideas concerning gender and STEM, and on gender-inclusive science teaching and career guidance.