Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

Posted at 9:15 AM ET, 03/23/2010

Why aren’t there more women in STEM?

By Valerie Strauss

Girls and boys take math and science courses in roughly equal numbers from elementary school through high school, but far fewer women pursue science and engineering majors in college. Why?

A new report says that despite gains by women, social and environmental factors still play a big role in maintaining a gender gap in the science and engineering fields.

The report by the American Association of University Women is called “Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics” and it analyzes the findings of dozens of studies on this subject.

It concludes that the stereotype that boys are better than girls in math and science still negatively affects the performance of girls in these fields. Gender differences in self-confidence in STEM subjects starts in middle school and increases thereafter, with girls being less confident in their math and science abilities.

But when teachers and parents tell girls that their intelligence can expand with experience and learning, the report says, they do better on math tests and are more likely to say they want to continue to study math in the future.

Workplace bias is another factor, according to the report. Colleges and universities still don’t do enough to create environments in which women faculty feel comfortable; research shows that that women are less satisfied with the academic workplace and are more likely to leave earlier than their male counterparts.

Institutions of higher education could attract more female students in the fields of physics and computer science departments by making small improvements, such as providing a broader overview of the field in introductory courses.

How underrepresented are women in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math?

The report quotes the National Science Foundation, which estimates that about 5 million people work directly in science, engineering and technology, just over 4 percent of the U.S. workforce.

Workplace projections for 2018 by the Labor Department show that nine of the 10 fastest-growing occupations that require at least a bachelor’s degree will require significant scientific or mathematical training. Some of the largest increases will be in engineering- and computer-related fields in which women now hold one-quarter or fewer of the jobs.

For many years boy outperformed girls in math, but now there is no longer a difference in average math performance between them in the general school population.
And girls are earning high school math and science credits at the same rate as boys.

On high-stakes standardized math tests, boys still outscore girls, though the gap has narrowed. Fewer girls than boys take Advanced Placement exams in STEM-related subjects, and girls who do generally earn lower scores.

A few decades ago, the ratio of boys to girls in a very select group of seventh and eighth graders who scored higher than 700 on the SAT math section (1 in 10,000 students) used to be 13:1. But in recent years it has closed to about 3:1. The swift change, the report says, occurred much faster than it would take a genetic change to travel through the population.

What about differences in cognitive skills between boys and girls? Five years ago Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers upset the academic world by suggesting that the country’s shortage of elite female scientists might stem in part from "innate" differences between men and women. Critics accused him of saying that women are not genetically capable of doing math and science as well as men; Summers said he was misunderstood.

The report says that researchers have found different cognitive strengths and weaknesses among boys and girls.

Boys generally perform better on tasks that involve spatial orientation and visualization and on certain quantitative tasks that rely on those skills. Girls outperform boys on tests that rely on verbal skills, as well as on some tests that involve memory and perceptual speeds.

The report cites one research study in which first-year engineering students took a course to improve their spatial-visualization skills. More than three-quarters of the females who took the course remained in the school of engineering, compared with about one-half of the women who did not take the course.

Ultimately, the study makes a convincing case that “biology is not destiny.”

Follow my blog all day, every day by bookmarking And for admissions advice, college news and links to campus papers, please check out our new Higher Education page at Bookmark it!

By Valerie Strauss  | March 23, 2010; 9:15 AM ET
Categories:  Math, Research, Science, Technology  | Tags:  AAUW report, gender gap in STEM  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Ravitch's NCLB book an unexpected best seller
Next: One teacher’s cure for senioritis


"The report says that researchers have found different cognitive strengths and weaknesses among boys and girls.

Boys generally perform better on tasks that involve spatial orientation and visualization and on certain quantitative tasks that rely on those skills. Girls outperform boys on tests that rely on verbal skills, as well as on some tests that involve memory and perceptual speeds."

Now, if this study had included the types of toys each gender was given (or had requested) as a child and correlated such info with the cognitive strengths and weakness, that would interesting stuff. Stroll the aisles of a few major toy stores..... Toy vac vs. Lincoln logs, hmmm. Doll house vs. chemistry set. Pull string/talking horse vs. microscope or telescope. Edible gummy baking toy vs. erector set. Sparkle jewelry making kit vs. kids' environmental testing kit. Sometimes, it may be staying within a comfort zone when choosing a career.

Posted by: shadwell1 | March 23, 2010 10:24 AM | Report abuse

The idea that women not moving towards STEM fields is a personal choice...rather than the result of some gender biased society. Just as someone (of either gender) that has the needed mental capacity required to be in a STEM field would not feel right as a Liberal Arts major. I think the point of the research was to try to prove that society is still biased against women by showing how few women are in these STEM fields, but ignoring the evidence of how equal the women that are in these fields are treated both in Colleges and the job market. It's pointing to enrollment numbers rather than any true reflection of equality. An example is that men are free to choose whatever majors they desire, while they are complaining that women are not CHOOSING STEM majors. They then go a step further, trying to find out why women don't go into these STEM majors, only to try to paste the psychological make up of some women who didn't choose STEM majors onto the entire gender and then calling it a society based gender bias. That seems a bit sexist to me. I think it all goes back to choice. Women have the CHOICE to choose whatever major they want. What can be more equal than that?

Posted by: cgallaway2000 | March 23, 2010 12:03 PM | Report abuse

Shadwell: You are absolutely correct. Walking through any toy department in any major retailer will show you that girls toys usually require a lot of imagination and do very little, while boys toys require little imagination but require a lot more tinkering. It seems that girls are expected to play with the same type of dolls from the age of 2 until the age of 10-12 or when they "discover" sports or boys. It is also amazing how many girl toys are domestic products (mops, ovens, etc.) and even how many of those are old fashioned that the child never sees the parents use (tea sets, ironing sets, etc).

And the number one driver of getting all those toys for their daughters is the Mother/Aunts/Grandmothers, etc. Not that most men wouldn't get that stuff should the daughter want it, but the father mostly wouldn't introduce the concepts to the daughter. Meaning (to tie this back into the article) that it is women who, more than men, perpetuate this stereotype of what defines how girls are supposed to act and what they are supposed to be interested.

Posted by: cgallaway2000 | March 23, 2010 12:15 PM | Report abuse

Don't forget the huge number of toys for little girls that are all about beauty and clothes - for example, the Disney Princess line, or the myriad little toy purses full of toy makeup.

Posted by: bkmny | March 23, 2010 2:14 PM | Report abuse

Well I am happy to report my daughter was introduced to engineering in 8th grade and went on to a HS with a program in Advanced Technology and Engineering. She has been accepted to the School of Engineering at Virginina Tech, Ohio State, Penn State and the University of Marlyland--and I can count at least 4 of her female classmates who have done the same. Just a little light at the end of the STEM tunnel :D

Posted by: eaglechik | March 24, 2010 7:38 AM | Report abuse

eaglechik: Congratulations to you and your daughter! Hope she thrives. If I may offer a suggestion (one you may have already addressed), inquire about the female retention rate in engineering for each university.

Further reading:

Posted by: shadwell1 | March 24, 2010 11:41 AM | Report abuse

shadwell1-Thanks. We decided on UMD, they have a very strong support infastructure for female engineering students. PSU was #1 on list but UMD is in state. The whole tutition thing is another Oprah show :D, thanks for looking out!

Posted by: eaglechik | March 25, 2010 7:38 AM | Report abuse

I have boy/girl twins age 5, and I can also speak to the lack of tech toys for my daughter. Lego has tons of Star Wars, Indiana Jones, trucks, boats, and ships to appeal to young boys. I found a pink Lego box with some basic pieces for my daughter, and that is about it. I visited Legoland last week and there was virtually nothing there for her either. These types of toys offer the spatial orientation and visualization practice that girls need, but they are hopelessly underserved here. Ditto for video games that are heavily war themed, and portray women's bodies unrealistically.

Young women staying away from STEM is a choice, but perhaps not for the reasons you may think. If you've read the recent articles on "Of Girls and Geeks", you might start to see that computing careers (as portrayed on TV, in ads, and in movies) are heavily stereotyped as male and geeky. The few women that are portrayed tend to be similarly quirky. Visit a local engineering college with a female middle school or high school student and take a look at the environment. Does she see anything that appeals to her? I did this exercise last week with my 14-year-old daughter, nephew, and niece. The walls of UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering were bare (1st floor), except for some highly technical topic posters that were over their heads. There was no culturally inclusive or gender inclusive signage, art, or ads that appealed to them (or me). Young women are making the choice to be in a dynamic, inclusive, and appealing environment (which is why young girls chose Barbie's next career as news anchor over computer engineer). It's all about marketing STEM careers to a different audience and in a different way. Exposure to STEM opportunities and the wide range of careers available (paired with success in STEM, paired with entry into an inviting, inclusive, and supportive environment, paired with mentorship and role models) is critical.

Posted by: pattyl11 | March 25, 2010 3:28 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company