Inequalities in fields of study

There are two areas of focus for this project:

1. Gender inequalities in STEM fields of study
This study examines how the institutional features of upper-secondary and higher education entry systems shape gender-specific choice of field of study. We adopt a cross-country approach by comparing the mediating role of upper secondary subject choice for gender segregation in higher education in Scotland, Ireland and Germany, three distinct countries in terms of freedom of choice of advanced subjects in upper secondary education and the relevance of school subject take-up for higher education admission. The results show that the take-up of Maths and sciences in secondary school mediates gender differences in STEM fields in Scotland, followed by Ireland and Germany. However, there is no evidence that women who specialise in Maths and sciences in school are more likely than their male counterparts to take STEM within HE. Thus, it appears that science subject take-up within upper secondary education is a necessary but not a sufficient condition to ensure progression to STEM fields.

Paper associated with this research:

• Jacob M., Iannelli C., Duta A. and Smyth E. (under review) ‘The Institutional Embeddedness of Gendered Choices of Field of Study’

2. Social stratification in higher education though field of study
Another study related to the choice of field of study in higher education assesses the extent to which fields of study and post-secondary institutional sectors serve as mechanisms to preserve social stratification in Scottish higher education. We combine data from representative surveys from six cohorts of Scottish school leavers with data from labour force surveys and higher education statistics to examine patterns of inequality in fields of study overall, and within types of Scottish higher education, from the late 1980s to the early 2000s. The results indicate that fields of study are not stratified by social origins. Indeed, within the newer sectors of Scottish postsecondary education we see evidence of persons from less advantaged backgrounds choosing more lucrative fields of study: students from intermediate and working class origins tend to be overrepresented in high-return fields of study. Although fields of study do not stratify students by social origins, they do magnify gender inequality, as men are overrepresented and women are underrepresented in fields with greater labour market returns.

Paper associated with this research:

• Iannelli, C., Gamoran A. and Paterson L. (under review) Fields of Study: Horizontal or Vertical Differentiation within Higher Education Sectors?

Policy relevance:
This area of research is relevant to policy makers and practitioners interested in addressing gender and social inequalities in fields of study in higher education. It provides comparative evidence in relation to the magnitude of the gender gap in STEM fields and regarding the importance of studying STEM subjects in secondary school for explaining gender inequalities in higher education. It also helps to understand whether choice of more or less remunerative fields of study may be a factor for the reproduction of social inequalities in the labour market.


Cristina Iannelli
Marita Jacob
Lindsay Paterson
Emer Smyth
Adriana Duta