Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics
The American Association of University Women has issued a report written by Catherine Hill, Christianne Corbett and Andresse St. Rose:
The number of women in science and engineering is growing, yet men continue to outnumber women, especially at the upper levels of these professions. In elementary, middle, and high school, girls and boys take math and science courses in roughly equal numbers, and about as many girls as boys leave high school prepared to pursue science and engineering majors in college. Yet fewer women than men pursue these majors. Among first-year college students, women are much less likely than men to say that they intend to major in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM). By graduation, men outnumber women in nearly every science and engineering field, and in some, such as physics, engineering, and computer science, the difference is dramatic, with women earning only 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees. Women’s representation in science and engineering declines further at the graduate level and yet again in the transition to the workplace.
Drawing on a large and diverse body of research, this report presents eight recent research findings that provide evidence that social and environmental factors contribute to the underrepresentation of women in science and engineering. The rapid increase in the number of girls achieving very high scores on mathematics tests once thought to measure innate ability suggests that cultural factors are at work. Thirty years ago there were 13 boys for every girl who scored above 700 on the SAT math exam at age 13; today that ratio has shrunk to about 3:1.
This increase in the number of girls identified as “mathematically gifted” suggests that education can and does make a difference at the highest levels of mathematical achievement. While biological gender differences, yet to be well understood, may play a role, they clearly are not the whole story.
Girls’ Achievements and Interest in Math and Science Are Shaped by the Environment around Them
This report demonstrates the effects of societal beliefs and the learning environment on girls’ achievements and interest in science and math. One finding shows that when teachers and parents tell girls that their intelligence can expand with experience and learning, girls do better on math tests and are more likely to say they want to continue to study math in the future.
That is, believing in the potential for intellectual growth, in and of itself, improves outcomes. This is true for all students, but it is particularly helpful for girls in mathematics, where negative stereotypes persist about their abilities. By creating a “growth mindset” environment, teachers and parents can encourage girls’ achievement and interest in math and science.
Does the stereotype that boys are better than girls in math and science still affect girls today?
Research profiled in this report shows that negative stereotypes about girls’ abilities in math can indeed measurably lower girls’ test performance. Researchers also believe that stereotypes can lower girls’ aspirations for science and engineering careers over time. When test administrators tell students that girls and boys are equally capable in math, however, the difference in performance essentially disappears, illustrating that changes in the learning environment can improve girls’ achievement in math.
The issue of self-assessment, or how we view our own abilities, is another area where cultural factors have been found to limit girls’ interest in mathematics and mathematically challenging careers. Research profiled in the report finds that girls assess their mathematical abilities lower than do boys with similar mathematical achievements. At the same time, girls hold themselves to a higher standard than boys do in subjects like math, believing that they have to be exceptional to succeed in “male” fields. One result of girls’ lower self-assessment of their math ability—even in the face of good grades and test scores — and their higher standards for performance is that fewer girls than boys aspire to STEM careers. By emphasizing that girls and boys achieve equally well in math and science, parents and teachers can encourage girls to assess their skills more accurately.
One of the largest gender differences in cognitive abilities is found in the area of spatial skills, with boys and men consistently outperforming girls and women. Spatial skills are considered by many people to be important for success in engineering and other scientific fields. Research highlighted in this report, however, documents that individuals’ spatial skills consistently improve dramatically in a short time with a simple training course. If girls grow up in an environment that enhances their success in science and math with spatial skills training, they are more likely to develop their skills as well as their confidence and consider a future in a STEM field.
Most people associate science and math fields with “male” and humanities and arts fields with “female,” according to research examined in this report. Implicit bias is common, even among individuals who actively reject these stereotypes. This bias not only affects individuals’ attitudes toward others but may also influence girls’ and women’s likelihood of cultivating their own interest in math and science. Taking the implicit bias test at https://implicit.harvard.edu can help people identify and understand their biases so that they can work to compensate for them.
Not only are people more likely to associate math and science with men than with women, people often hold negative opinions of women in “masculine” positions, like scientists or engineers. Research profiled in this report shows that people judge women to be less competent than men in “male” jobs unless they are clearly successful in their work. When a woman is clearly competent in a “masculine” job, she is considered to be less likable. Because both likability and competence are needed for success in the workplace, women in STEM fields can find themselves in a double bind. If women and men in science and engineering know that this bias exists, they can work to interrupt the unconscious thought processes that lead to it. It may also help women specifically to know that if they encounter social disapproval in their role as a computer scientist or physicist, it is likely not personal and there are ways to counteract it.
The full report can be read at the American Association of University Women