"It's a fascinating moment in time to study the reasons behind gender differences in the STEM fields"
 Izaskun Zuazu

Izaskun Zuazu

Tania Alonso
Izaskun Zuazu, researcher at the Institute for Socioeconomics at the University of Duisburg-Essen, winner of the Cecilia Castaño Prize, organized by GenTIC research group, at the IN3 of the UOC


More than 48% of doctoral degree holders in the European Union were women in 2018. Nevertheless, this figure hides a situation in which equality is a long way away: women are overrepresented in fields such as education and care, and underrepresented in other fields, such as mathematics and engineering. This means that there are still significant gender gaps which have a major impact on our societies. 

In order to promote gender equality in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and in ICT (information and communication technologies), the Gender and ICT research group (GenTIC) at the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3) of the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) has awarded the Cecilia Castaño Prize for the first time. 

This prize is given in recognition of the best research papers on gender inequality in these disciplines. The first prize went to Izaskun Zuazu, a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Socioeconomics at the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany, for her article "Graduates' Opium? Cultural Values, Religiosity and Gender Segregation by Field of Study". We talked to her to find out more about her results and the implications of her work.

Your research analyses how sexes are separated in higher education. What made you interested in this subject? Do you think it is an important problem today?

Various experiences helped with my education in gender and feminist economics and intersectional political economics in the final years of my doctoral degree. I started to wonder why women and men choose different university degrees in countries which had high levels of gender equality. I read a lot about the unequal impacts of austerity policies, and I was interested to find the extent to which those policies have different implications for women and men when they choose their programmes. 

Gender segregation in tertiary education is crucial for understanding segmentation in the labour market, and is linked to the perpetuation of traditional roles and the sexual division of labour. It's a very important problem, since it creates significant disparities: some university degrees lead to better jobs, paying higher salaries. So it has a direct impact on the wage gap and on economic inequality, as well as on how paid and unpaid work is distributed between women and men.

You examine whether cultural values such as religion play a role in gender segregation in higher education. Do they?

Initially, my results surprised me a great deal: there's less segregation in more religious countries such as Turkey and Poland, and women are better represented in the STEM fields than in other less religious countries, which have higher levels of wealth and gender equality. According to modernization theory, the social and economic differences between women and men decline as countries develop economically. However, in my article I show that Sweden, Denmark and Norway present high levels of segregation when it comes to choosing university degrees. In fact, taking into account the data used in the article, the percentage of women graduating in STEM fields is lower than in Italy or Spain. The literature calls this 'the Scandinavian paradox'.

Other recent articles have found that the wealthier the country, the greater the differences in behaviour and activities between women and men. As Diane Elson, Professor Emerita of Economics at the University of Essex, puts it some gender gaps are closed while others emerge. This is precisely what we're seeing in university systems in Western countries: women are participating at university to an increasing extent, but there are barriers to women's access to certain degree courses, such as those in the STEM fields.

What factors, rather than religion, influence the way in which men and women choose their courses?

Cultural values, such as gender norms, play a very important role when it comes to understanding the overrepresentation of men in the STEM disciplines and women in education, the humanities or health. These norms have an effect on people's economic behaviour. If we consider the choice people make about their university degree in terms of an investment, we can conceptualize how gender norms govern economic outcomes for women and men. 

In my article, I highlight a significant link between gender norms and segregation in tertiary education, and other studies conclude that the macroeconomic situation can affect women and men in different ways when choosing their degree course. In France, for example, there's evidence that higher levels of unemployment are linked to a greater tendency for women to decide to take STEM degrees. 

Other factors have also been studied in the literature, such as the socialization process and parents' participation in the labour market. Finally, I believe that the type of education and gender stereotypes, especially in relation to mathematics and abstract thinking at the early levels of education, are crucial for understanding the lack of women in the STEM disciplines and men on degree courses such as Early Childhood Education, for example. 

How did you come to this conclusion? 

While doing this research, I realized that there's a very clear link between religious belief, gender norms, and confidence in one's mathematics ability. A dislike of mathematics is an important consideration when choosing a university degree. I used PISA data in my article to show that women have higher levels of anxiety when taking maths tests and that they have a lower self-perception of their ability than men. I think that policies which promote an egalitarian education which isn't biased by gender stereotypes should be implemented, in order to even out the gender distribution in university degree courses.

Your research is based on the use of data. How important are data for understanding and tackling current problems?

If effective public policies are to be designed and implemented, their objectives must be defined beforehand, and it must be possible to empirically test their effects. In the case of gender segregation in tertiary education, there are many challenges and areas for improvement when providing administrative data. I came across many problems with harmonizing administrative data from different countries when I was writing my article. The biggest problem is that UNESCO changed the classification of tertiary fields of study in 2013. This prevented me from using a longer timescale.

You live and work in Germany. What differences are there between Germany and Spain in terms of equal representation for men and women in higher education?

I'm a member of the teaching staff on several core courses in the bachelor's degree in Political Science at my university, and it was really surprising to see the low level of representation of women in this field. The age when people become independent from their parents, the fertility rate and the age at which people have their first child are some of the factors that are clearly different between Germany and the countries on the European periphery. This can affect the decisions people take about a university degree. 

The role of the state, public policies, social infrastructure and benefits (such as those aimed at an equal distribution of the care economy) are essential for creating university systems with a gender and intersectional perspective, which are committed to eliminating economic, social and power imbalances between women and men. Gender differences are also intersectional to other demographic factors, such as race, ethnicity, nationality, and skills diversity. This makes the segregation of STEM fields a much more complex phenomenon, if that's possible. 

Based on your experience, are the results of your study consistent with society's cultural values in both Spain and Germany?

In general terms, the results of my article are consistent with what I can see in my everyday life, and my experience in the university systems in Spain, Italy and Germany. However, the data I use in my article go up to 2012. The pandemic, and developments in information and communication technology, may lead cultural values and gender norms to evolve. It's a fascinating moment in time to study the reasons behind gender differences in the STEM fields, and their effects on the labour market and the sexual division of labour.

What possible avenues does your research open up for finding solutions that prevent this gender segregation in higher education?

My article clearly highlights gender differences in self-perception and anxiety in mathematics as factors in horizontal segregation in tertiary education. Educational policies that combat essentialist gender stereotypes are possible solutions. The lack of women in STEM disciplines is the result of traditional gender roles and ideas, such as the concept that women are better at care, and men have more skills in abstract and technical thinking. 

Fostering unbiased pedagogy and redirecting power structures in the early stages of education can lead to greater equality in affinity with mathematics and increase gender diversity in university degree courses. It's also interesting not only to design policies that foster the participation of women in STEM disciplines, but also policies so that more men enter fields such as teaching or nursing. 

How important is research for addressing gender inequalities?

As I mentioned earlier, data and empirical analysis are necessary for designing and implementing public policies. As a quantitative economist, I strongly believe in the use of econometrics to improve knowledge about different phenomena. A feminist and intersectional perspective also means we can question not only the power structures of the phenomena that we study in the real economy, but also the scientific methods that we use. Using econometric data and models comes with a great responsibility to provide critical analysis that's useful to all groups in society. 

What does receiving the 2022 Cecilia Castaño Prize mean to you? 

It's an enormous honour to receive this recognition for my article, and I'm deeply grateful to the UOC and to Cecilia Castaño herself. Her work isn't only very interesting, but it's also pioneering in terms of understanding the relationship between gender segregation and technology. Her work's influenced some of my other articles, in which I study the relationship between productivity, structural change, and sectoral gender segregation, among other topics. 

I published this article during my maternity leave, when my son was one month old. I finished reviewing it while I was breastfeeding him on my lap, so this prize is a recognition of my efforts to balance my unpaid care work with my professional work. 


The GenTIC research group was established in 2006 at the UOC's IN3, and aims to identify and analyse gender relations in the design, development and use of scientific and technological innovations, with special attention to ICT and the STEM disciplines. Since then, it has studied the mutual relationship between human activity and technology, and has sought answers to different social challenges from a gender perspective.

GenTIC has coordinated numerous Spanish and international projects in the nearly 20 years since it was formed. Its latest research projects include INSPIRE, a project funded by the Horizon Europe programme - grant agreement No 101058537- aimed at closing the gender gap and promoting a more inclusive research and innovation system with underrepresented groups, and HORIGESTEM, which is funded by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation (MCIN/AEI/ 10.13039/501100011033 / ERDF) and aims to examine the influence of interventions with leading women to break down gender stereotypes and reduce the gender gap in the choice of courses, with a special focus on the STEM fields.



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