Equity Issues

STEM Review Suggests Small Measures To Close Gender Gap

While biological differences between the genders could play a role in women's propensity to move away from STEM fields, the research is inconclusive, according to a review of research projects on the topic done by the AAUW. More likely, according to the researchers, is that cultural factors have a greater impact in the underrepresentation of women in science, technology, engineering, and math. The studies suggest that the creation of a "growth mindset" in which teachers and parents encourage girls' interest in the STEM fields can have a major influence on their desire to continue in those studies.

The findings echo those reported earlier this week in a research project funded by Bayer that found that women and certain minorities were discouraged on their way to STEM careers. (Read "Colleges, Professors Discourage Women from Pursuing STEM Careers.")

The AAUW (formerly known as the American Association of University Women) is a non-profit organization with about 100,000 members and 500 institutional partners.

The STEM gender gap phenomenon has been amply reported: Girls and boys take math and science classes in equal numbers through high school, and their performance is fairly equivalent. Yet when women get into college, suddenly, fewer of them actually pursue STEM majors. The gap grows in graduate school and gets even wider post-graduation, in the work force. In academia, while women make up 40 percent of full-time faculty in colleges and universities, they make up only a quarter in computer and information sciences and 12 percent in engineering.

The densely written, 134-page report, "Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics," examines the outcome of a review of academic articles published in the last 25 years on the topic of women in science and engineering. The report was funded by multiple contributors, including the National Science Foundation.

According to the study's authors, three areas of focus emerge from that survey of research:

  • The idea persists that men are "mathematically superior and innately better suited to STEM fields";
  • Girls lose interest in STEM; and
  • The workplace presents a multitude of discouraging challenges, from bias to work-life balance.

After reviewing 400 articles, the report's authors concluded that looking to biological differences in female and male brains--which exist in areas such as spatial cognition (the ability to perform mental rotation)--isn't sufficient to explain the "dearth of female scientists." There's not enough evidence to conclude one way or the other, they reported.

Plus, they found that to be a weaker argument "than the evidence for other factors, such as gender differences in preferences and sociocultural influences." Those include the existence of the stereotypes that boys are better than girls in math and science, which in themselves "can lower girls' aspirations for science and engineering careers over time," and implicit biases that tend to associate STEM jobs with men and liberal arts jobs with women. In the workplace, many women leave careers in STEM industries, the report stated, when they encounter obstacles including an "unsupportive environment, extreme work schedules, and unclear rules about advancement and success."

The good news, the authors said, is that cultural biases can be dismantled and small differences can make a difference in attracting and retaining women in STEM. For example, in academia, modifying admissions requirements and department outreach practices, presenting a broader overview of the field in introductory courses, and providing a student lounge for all students, the authors reported, "can add up to big gains in female student recruitment and retention." College and university administrators can also do a better job of attracting and retaining female faculty by setting up mentoring programs and establishing work-life policies for all faculty members.

The report provides a number of recommendations, such as encouraging girls to take higher-level science and math classes in high school, exposing girls to successful female role models in math and science to help counter stereotypes to the contrary, and being explicit about performance standards and expectations in class to prevent girls from underestimating their abilities.

As for that male-female gap in spatial cognition--the biological difference argument--the authors recommended teaching those spatial skills to students, since practice improves them.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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