If you want to check a summary of this study, click here
For an introduction to this study, you click here ;)
I would recommend you check here for the literature review. It does help to understand why I did what I did.
I also recommend you to read the methodology in order to understand how all these graphs were made, so click here. I shall separate this post in three parts, being this one — “STEM Leaving Certificate subjects” — the first, followed by “STEM Leaving Certificate subjects: percentage behaviour throughout the years”, and then finishing the results chapter with “STEM Leaving Certificate subjects: a Higher Level breakdown between genders”.

Research Findings


These results aim to answer the question of how the 2008 financial crisis affected the pursuit of STEM subjects by students sitting the Leaving Certificate. The Leaving Certificate exam is considered an inflection point for students since it accounts for the entrance to third-level institutions in the Republic of Ireland. I hope to shed a light on its evolution throughout the years in order to evaluate the importance students place on STEM subjects and, consequently, future STEM careers.

STEM Leaving Certificate subjects

Agricultural Science

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Figure 10 — Agricultural Science

Agricultural science is a subject assessed at two levels, Ordinary Level and Higher Level, through assessment work and a written examination, both undertaken during the course. As pictured in Figure 10, the subject has been steadily seeing an increase in the numbers of candidates since around 2003. More males and females are choosing to sit the Higher Level order of the exam, driving the total amount to reach an all time peak in 2014 with 6329 pupils, 3775 males and 2554 females.

If compared to the numbers observed in 1994, a twenty year difference in time resulted in an approximately two point eight five times increase in demand for the subject for the Higher Level order for males - in 1994 the amount of male pupils was 1325 – and a sixteen point twenty seven increase in demand for females – in 1994, the amount of female pupils choosing to sit Higher Level order exam was 157.

When taking into consideration the Ordinary Level, the amount of male and female pupils has increased in the twenty two years period considered, but both quantities have always been lower than their Higher Level gender counterparts.

No overlap has been observed or a switch between genders throughout the time-period considered for Ordinary and Higher levels, being the amount of male candidates always greater then the amount of females for both levels.

No substantial or acute change has been observed in the amount of candidates one year before and one year after the 2008 financial crisis hit Ireland, which weakens the proposed correlation between the later and the former observed events.

Applied Mathematics

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Figure 11 — Applied Mathematics

The subject Applied Mathematics (or Applied Maths), which is composed mostly of mathematics applied to physics, is, like all Leaving Certificate subjects, assessed at two levels: Ordinary Level and Higher Level. Figure 11 shows how the amount of candidates choosing to sit both levels of the exam has changed from 1993 to 2015 for self-declared male and female candidates.

Considerably less sought when compared to all other subjects bar one, Applied Mathematics candidates make an interesting case: the gender disparity between male and female Higher Level candidates is blatantly perceived regardless of the year analysed.

In 1993, the ratio “male to female” at Ordinary level was approximately five, and six at Higher Level. In 2015, twenty two years later, the same ratio was approximately 3 at both Ordinary and Higher levels. Gender disparity has decreased throughout the years, just like the number of candidates sitting the Ordinary Level for both genders.

When considering the change in the amount of candidates sitting the Higher Level of the exam from 1993 to 2015, one can notice an increase of sixty eight percent in the number of male candidates and an increase of two hundred and two percent in the number of female candidates.

A substantial inflexion point can be observed in 2010 for males sitting the Higher Level exam, which follows a 5-year constant rate-growth, but no noteworthy change for both levels and genders can be seen at the 2008 mark.


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Figure 12 — Biology

The results so far have shown a higher number of males sitting Higher Level exams for Applied Mathematics and Agricultural Science when compared to their female counterparts for every year considered.

For Biology, although female candidates outnumbered males in both levels every year, at least for the first half-part of the time-period considered as observed in Figure 12. From 1993 to 2004, there has been no significant change (number of candidates > 2000) in the number of females and males sitting the Ordinary Level, but the pace of female candidates has been steadily decreasing throughout the years.

When considering the Higher Level exam, the number of female candidates reached an all-time high in 2015 with almost 15910 female candidates choosing to sit Biology for their Leaving Certificate, 4884 more than the Higher Level amount in 1993, which represents an increase of forty four percent in the number.

It is worth highlighting the fact there has been a considerable rise in the number of male Higher Level candidates starting in 2007 and progressing until 2015. The number of male candidates increased from 5441 in 2007 to 9685 in 2015, which represents a growth of seventy eight percent. Since Biology is a requirement for most healthcare-related college courses (such as dentistry, nursery and medicine), such substantial growth may indicate an awareness of economic instability, which reflects a demand for jobs that suffer the least from the effects of the recession on the labour market (Kopelman and Roses, 2016; Dolfman and Holden, 2018).


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Figure 13 — Chemistry

As Figure 13 shows, the results for Chemistry revealed a minor difference between the candidates’ genders. At the Ordinary Level, the amount of male candidates is similar to the amount of female candidates during the last half-part of the time-period considered. Females started in fewer numbers compared to males and from 1993 to 2004 the gap between them has been narrowing until both reached very similar quantities in 2008.

At the Higher Level, females have been outnumbering males since both genders reached a peak in 1995. From 2001 onwards, there has been a steady and increasing rate in the number of both female and male candidates, reaching their high in 2015 with 3276 male candidates and 4256 female candidates.

No drastic shift occurred in 2008. The only substantial change in numbers worth mentioning is the increase in female candidates at the Higher Level when considering the period from 1993 to 2015, which was fifty three percent (from 2780 candidates in 1993 to 4257 candidates in 2015).


Since the beginning of the time-period considered, the number of male candidates sitting the Engineering exam has been staggering greater than the number of female candidates sitting the same exam (Figure 14). Such disparity is indicative of the low number of females enrolling in engineering-related courses in Irish Universities and Technology Institutes, and a reason to be concerned when predicting the labour market’s future overall (Reuben, Wiswall and Zafar, 2017).

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Figure 14 — Engineering

The number of males choosing to sit the Ordinary Level has practically halved in twenty two years, going from 1886 in 1993 to mere 893 candidates in 2015. Conversely, the number of males sitting the Higher Level exam has gone from 3011 in 1993 to 4159 in 2015, a notable growth of thirty eight percent. The biggest change in numbers starts in 2007, 3228 candidates, and continues until 2015, the last year considered.

The Leaving Certificate Engineering exam consists of a written examination, a project and a practical examination. Most girl-only schools do not offer the necessary preparation for the exam, which might explain why most girls choose not to sit it. Further research in the area is advised, considering the increasing demand for engineers in the labour market and also to highlight a possible, and worrisomely disfavorable, gender-bias in second-level schools funded by the state.


Mathematics is the only STEM-related Leaving Certificate subject which can be examined at three levels - Higher, Ordinary and Foundation – and there are two examination papers at each level. Due to being one of the three required subjects which students need to have at least a pass grade in to gain entry to any university in Ireland, the number of students choosing to sit Mathematics is very high.

In 2012 Irish Higher Education Institutions introduced the Bonus Points scheme for Higher Level Leaving Certificate Mathematics, which might explain why the number of candidates, both males and females, choosing to sit the Mathematics Higher Level exam has increased since 2011 (Figure 15). Concomitantly, Ordinary Level numbers have decreased, hitting all-time low points for both genders – 15949 male and 17317 female candidates.

Following the same path of Chemistry, no drastic change in numbers occurred in 2008.

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Figure 15 — Mathematics


The results for Physics (Figure 16) mimic, on a certain level, what has been seen previously in Engineering (Figure 14). Fewer females than males chose to sit the exam at both Ordinary and Higher Levels, and all numbers have decreased in the time-period considered.

In 1993, while 5046 male candidates chose Higher Level Physics, only 2134 female candidates did the same, a difference of one hundred and thirty six percent. In 2015, the difference between genders was one hundred and sixty eight percent (4196 males and 1568 females). For Ordinary Level Physics, the difference between the number of male and female candidates was even greater in 1993: while 3363 males decided to sit the exam, 531 females followed, which gives a ratio of more than six males for one female; the situation gets a bit narrower in 2015 with the ratio of four males to one female.

No significant change was noticed in the numbers related to the year 2008 for males and females at both levels.

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Figure 16 — Physics

Physics and Chemistry

One reason why the number of pupils sitting the Physics and Chemistry Leaving Certificate exam (Figure 17) has been drastically decreasing for the past twenty two years is that fewer schools are offering to teach the subject, and the fact that when a pupil sits Physics and Chemistry, she cannot sit Physics or Chemistry individually. Most STEM-related and healthcare college courses do not accept Physics and Chemistry points, requiring from the candidate good grades in Physics and/or Chemistry as separated subjects.

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Figure 17 — Physics and Chemistry

There was an astounding gap between the numbers of males sitting both Higher and Ordinary Levels in 1993 and 2015. At the beginning of this time-period, 443 male candidates sat at Ordinary Level and 717 at Higher Level; in 2015, for the aforementioned Levels, the numbers were 78 and 266. The change in the number of Ordinary Level male candidates from 1993 to 2015 is approximately minus four hundred and sixty eight percent, whilst at Higher Level is minus one hundred and seventy percent with the same twenty two years period considered.

In 1993, 100 females sat at Ordinary Level, while 330 pursued grades at Higher Level. In 2015, there were 37 at Ordinary Level and 171 at Higher Level: a difference of minus one hundred and seventy percent and minus ninety three percent respectively.

No substantial change was noticed in 2008 for male and female candidates at both levels.

STEM Leaving Certificate subjects: overall comparison

Aiming to elucidate the variation in the pursuit of STEM subjects at the Leaving Certificate exam throughout the years, I chose to work with the percentage of pupils sitting the four main STEM subjects – Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics, and Physics – generally offered to both boys and girls, and plot their respective values in relation to every year the exam took place starting in 1993.


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Figure 18 — STEM Subjects: Male

As exemplified in Figure 18, from 1993 to 2015, there was an overall small rate of variation in the percentage of male pupils sitting Mathematics, with its lowest point being eighty four point one percent in 2011 and its highest hitting eighty eight seven percent in 2003. The presented subject’s relative stability, considering its numbers, can be attributed in part to its mandatory character when it comes to applications to Irish Higher Education institutions, which also might explain why it shows no drastic change at the 2008 mark.

The second most popular STEM subject at the Leaving Certificate is the same for both male (Figure 18) and female (Figure 19) candidates: Biology. Although presenting a considerable variation in numbers – from twenty six point two percent in 2002 to forty nine point three percent in 2015 - throughout the time-period considered, its prominent second-place superiority remained assured for twenty two years. In 2015, while almost half the number of males chose to sit Biology, only one fifth chose to sit Physics, a startling thirty percent difference. After experiencing a steady downfall in 2002, the subject has gained traction and has been increasing in numbers since then.

Both Physics and Chemistry suffered through almost the same variation changes, in module, from year to year. At the start of the time-period considered, thirty one percent of the male Leaving Certificate candidates chose to sit Physics, while fifteen percent chose Chemistry. The former hit its lowest percentage point in 2012 with eighteen percent, and ten point nine percent in 2001. After 1993, Physics’ numbers never recovered and they have been in relative decline since 2003, with no significant schism in 2008. As regards to Chemistry, its ups and downs in numbers never reached a difference bigger than four percent, more or less. Since 2008, there’s been a regular increase in male numbers, reaching almost its initial peak (fifteen percent in 1993) at fourteen point seven percent.


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Figure 19 — STEM Subjects: Female

Insofar as our concern with numbers goes, female candidates are relatively more tied up to at least one STEM subject when compared to males, and it is Biology. The mandatory character of Mathematics also applies to females, which reflects similarly in Figure 19 as it did with males in Figure 18, so its effect does not collaborate to elucidate this study’s hypothesis.

In regard to the other three STEM subjects, it is worth noting how Chemistry has a bigger pursuit when compared to Physics regardless of the year we analyse. They both started off at around ten percent in 1993 but have been diverging from each other since then. The biggest observed gap between them two occured in 2015 with Chemistry being chosen by seventeen point eight percent of female candidates and Physics being picked up by six point seven percent of the female Leaving Certificate population. This equals to a eleven point one percent difference in numbers, which makes it for one fifth of the difference between Chemistry and Biology candidates in 2015 – and a difference of sixty six point seven percent between Physics and Biology.

Biology, Chemistry and Physics have presented similar patterns and uniformity from 2003 onwards. Both Biology and Chemistry have seen an increase in numbers, reaching all time peak in 2015, whilst Physics followed the opposite path, reaching its lowest point in 2011 – five point nine percent - and staying relatively low as time progresses.

From 2007 to 2009 no pertinent behaviour to this study’s hypothesis was noticeable.


Both male and female candidates contributed to the data presented in Figure 20, which is demonstrated by the almost uniform behaviour of Mathematics, Chemistry and Physics numbers. Due to a rise in the number of female candidates sitting the Biology Leaving Certificate exam from 2003 onwards, an increase in the overall number of Biology candidates can also be concomitantly spotted. In 2015, Biology hit a peak with sixty one point five percent of all candidates choosing to sit the exam.

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Figure 20 — STEM Subjects: Total

In 1993, almost one quarter of the total number of candidates sat the Physics exam, whilst half the percentage chose to sit Chemistry. Twenty two years afterwards, Chemistry was the choice of sixteen point two percent of the candidates, and Physics lagged behind by almost three percent. From 1993 until 2008, Chemistry numbers soared and Physics numbers plummeted. The year 2008 marks the inversion point for both subjects, and they continued to diverge since then.

In 2015, the number of Biology candidates accounted for two times the number of candidates sitting Chemistry and Physics combined. Such fascinating facts call for a deeper investigation of their existence, since it may shine a light over the effectiveness of constant efforts from educators to incentivize students - especially females - to pursue scientific careers.

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