Photo of high school girls in a science lab by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Flickr CC.

As the school year gets underway, many students are excited to get their schedules and find out which friends will be in their classes fall semester. But who is in their third-period Pre-Calc and seventh-period Physics may matter for more than just socializing. New research shows that friends’ and classmates’ preferences for school subjects influence adolescents’ opinions of STEM subjects, which potentially affects their occupational choice and earnings.

Isabel J. Raabe, Zso´fia Boda, and Christoph Stadtfeld examined Swedish adolescents’ social networks over time to find out how peers influence preferences for STEM subjects. A survey asked students about their favorite subject and who their best friends were in the class, first in eighth grade and then a year later. Controlling for socioeconomic status and cognitive ability, the researchers analyzed and compared the influence of friends and other students on the STEM preferences of boys and girls.

They found that while both boys and girls like what their friends like, social influence on favorite subject was stronger among boys. Since the boys in the sample were mostly friends with boys and the girls were mostly friends with girls, social influence came primarily from same-sex friends. Because boys already tended to prefer STEM subjects more at the start of the study, they were more likely to be exposed to STEM-preferring friends.

Girls, on the other hand, were influenced less by their friends’ favorite subjects than by simply having other girls in their class who preferred STEM subjects. This presence of girls who like STEM seemed to protect female students from negative consequences associated with violating gender norms, like preferring STEM subjects.

Despite Sweden’s policy efforts to reduce gender gaps, gender disparities among engineers and scientists persist. By identifying another factor influencing these disparities, this study can inform new solutions to keep young women in the STEM pipeline.