In the Dutch education system, pupils move on to one of three types of secondary education after completing primary school: pre-vocational secondary education (VMBO), general secondary education (HAVO) or pre-university education (VWO). Secondary education prepares pupils for secondary Vocational Education and Training (VET, MBO in Dutch), universities of applied sciences (HBO), or university education (WO). In the lower years of secondary school, pupils follow a broad curriculum. At the end of the second year (for pre-VET) or third year (for pre-university/university of applied sciences), they opt for one of four fixed subject combinations:
- In the pre-VET secondary education, pupils choose a sector preparing them for further vocational education and training, and their future jobs. The four sectors are Agriculture, Technology, Care & well-being, and Economy. They also choose one of four “learning tracks”, ranging from very practical to more theoretical, to suit their aptitudes and abilities.
- In the pre-university (or pre-university of applied sciences) education, pupils choose a ‘profile’: Nature & Technology, Nature & Health, Economy & Society, or Culture & Society. STEM subjects are usually only taught in the Nature & Technology and Nature & Health profiles.
The choice of a sector or profile is very important, since it determines the pupils’ range of options in higher education study programmes: e.g. STEM study programmes are only accessible for pupils who chose a natural science & technology profile in high school.
The number of pupils in pre-university (of applied sciences) secondary education who opt for a natural science & technology subject cluster has increased significantly since 2004 and is still increasing. Half the pupils - both boys and girls - chooses for the natural science & technology profiles (Nature & Technology or Nature & Health), although most girls choose for the Nature & Health profile, which has a stronger focus on biology, and less on physics and math. Clearly, the efforts made within secondary and higher education did have a positive impact. In pre-VET education however, 46% of boys choose for a technology sector, compared to only 6% of girls.
The pupils choosing for a technical or natural science sector/profile form the prospective candidates for higher STEM education. We would expect the increase in the popularity of natural science & technology subject clusters to be reflected in the influx statistics of higher STEM education. Unfortunately, the increased number of girls choosing a natural science & technology cluster in secondary school does not match the number of girls opting for an advanced STEM-study programme. While 70% of boys with a STEM profile in secondary pre-university (of applied sciences) education opts for an advanced STEM study programme in higher education, less than 50% of girls with a STEM profile proceed to a STEM study. For vocational education and training (VET), only 10% of the girls chooses for the technology sector (compared to 44% of boys).
Furthermore, statistics show that only a small percentage of Dutch female STEM graduates proceed into STEM professions. This phenomenon is commonly known as the “leaky pipeline”, a metaphor often used to describe how women drop out of STEM fields at all stages of their careers.
Traditionally, the Netherlands has lagged far behind other countries in terms of the percentage of girls/women opting for STEM profiles, study programmes and professions. According to the Eurostat statistics, the average number of female students in higher STEM education and VET is around 20%. The underrepresentation of girls and women cannot be attributed to differences in performance in STEM related school subjects or skills: girls perform equally 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, and career & family preferences of girls and women.