When it comes to STEM, does gender still matter?

Although it may seem surprising in light of the gains women have made in the last forty years, recent research shows that the gender gap in STEM fields still exists. According to the American Association of University Women, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics found that as of 2008, although more than half of biological scientists are women:

  • Just over 30% of chemists and material scientists are female
  • Women make up a little over 20% of computer programmers
  • Less than 7% of mechanical engineers are women

So why are women so underrepresented in STEM fields? While some people may assume that the gap is due to intrinsic ability or differences in interest, the research suggests that the real reasons are more complicated:

  • A recent study found that having a female instructor rather than a male instructor makes a big difference for female students in an introductory calculus, increasing class participation as well as the likelihood that a female student would ask the instructor questions outside of class.
  • Having female professors appears to provide a sort of “inoculation” against the stereotype that STEM fields are for men only.   It’s therefore important that women be well-represented in STEM departments in colleges as professors, TAs, and older students in the program.
  • Other findings “…suggest that other characteristics such as gender differences in orientation toward people versus things (Lubinski & Benbow, 2007), the value placed on different occupations (Eccles, 2007), and commitment to child rearing, family (Halpern, 2007), and full-time work (Lubinski & Benbow, 2007) are responsible for the differences in occupational choices and career achievement levels of males and females in math and science fields.” (55-56, Olszewski-Kubilius & Lee)
  • “…although gender differences on cognitive tests may be small and disappearing when heterogeneous samples of students are studied, they appear to remain robust for gifted samples.  These gender differences for gifted students have implications for the representation of the most able females in STEM professions.” (56, Olszewski-Kubilius & Lee)

What can parents, educators, and counselors do to help more girls find success in STEM?

  • Include female scientists and mathematicians in your history courses not as “special cases” but as equal contributors to their fields.  Researchers emphasize that  instructors need to make references to accomplished women in STEM in a “regular and low-key” way.
  • If a girl shows interest in STEM, encourage that interest – provide relevant activities, academic programs, enrichment, and acceleration.
  • Model genuine interest in STEM – excitement about learning is contagious.

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