Why aren’t there more women in STEM?
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.”
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| March 23, 2010; 9:15 AM ET
Categories: Math, Research, Science, Technology | Tags: AAUW report, gender gap in STEM
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