What Is the STEM Gender Gap, and What Can We Do About It?

What Is the STEM Gender Gap, and What Can We Do About It?

STEM fields are integral to the advancement of not only various industries, but also of society as a whole. Achievements in the areas of science, engineering, math, and technology enable us to solve challenges and lead lives that are safer, more efficient, and more convenient. Because of this, the pipeline of STEM scholars and professionals is an incredibly important resource.

It is crucial that the academic and business communities work together to ensure that students with an interest in STEM fields have both the confidence and opportunity to pursue them. However, at present, there is strong evidence to suggest that many of these students are falling through the cracks. In particular, students who are female and/or are from minority backgrounds are not proportionately represented in the majority of STEM fields. For instance, a 2011 study conducted by the US Department of Commerce found that just one out of every seven engineering professionals is female.

In order to maintain a robust pipeline of talent for the fields of study that move the world forward, we must ensure that all students with an aptitude for science, engineering, math, and technology receive the support that they deserve. What follows is an overview of the current state of the STEM gender gap, as well as strategies to close it.

Research on the Gender Gap in STEM

microbiologistThe gender gap in the STEM workforce correlates directly with the amount of men and women involved in STEM academic communities. Although women currently earn well over half of all bachelor’s degrees in the United States, they make up just 37 percent of STEM graduates. Additionally, women earn less than 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees in computer science. Thus, the fact that only 27 percent of computer science professionals are female is not surprising.

The gender gap in STEM academic and professional achievement is a complex issue without a single obvious cause. It is also persisting at a time when women are comprising an ever-growing portion of other professional sectors, including medicine and law.

Additionally, recent research has suggested that the STEM gender gap is not tied to discriminatory hiring or university admission practices. In fact, a study conducted by the University of Washington discovered low levels of discrimination across all STEM fields, including those with lower proportions of female professionals.

The fact that the gender gap exists to a greater degree in specific STEM sectors further complicates the issue. For example, women actually make up nearly half of all undergraduate degree recipients in chemistry, math, and biology programs. However, they comprise less than 20 percent of computer science, engineering, and physics graduates. At the same time, the burgeoning sustainable technology sector now boasts a more balanced demographic landscape than any other STEM field.

It is clear that, in order to close the gender gap in certain STEM professions, we must first close the gap in education. To do so, we must seek to understand why a larger number of women are not pursuing studies in STEM.

Potential Causes of the STEM Gender Gap

In general, the STEM gender gap is not the result of active attempts at exclusion. It has instead emerged because of society’s perception of STEM fields and the persistence of stereotypes and misconceptions regarding STEM professionals. A student’s confidence in his or her abilities has a significant impact on his or her academic performance. However, in many cases, female students are convinced that their male peers have an inherent advantage in STEM classes.

This lack of confidence doesn’t always originate from an explicit belief that men are smarter or more capable. Often, it occurs more subtly, with young girls adopting the belief that science and mathematics are the domain of men, while women are somehow predisposed to succeed in areas such as the humanities and the arts.

The common association between STEM fields and masculinity is due in part to a lack of visible female role models in STEM sectors. In some cases, women who might otherwise become leaders in STEM fields are discouraged by a lack of existing female leadership. This can perpetuate an unfortunate cycle of underrepresentation.

Portrayals of STEM professionals in the media are also largely responsible for common misconceptions about the role of women in STEM fields. Although entertainment increasingly features female characters at the height of professions such as medicine or law, cast members depicting computer programmers and engineers are generally male.

A lack of confidence in one’s abilities, fueled by a dearth of female STEM role models and depictions in the media that reinforce stereotypes about male-dominated STEM fields, can easily lead female students to shy away from pre-collegiate STEM experiences. This lack of early experience only serves to widen the STEM gender gap and illustrate the cyclical, interconnected nature of its impact.

Ways to Address the Gender Gap in STEM

workerIt is crucial that female students have opportunities to form realistic opinions of STEM topics and their own potential to succeed in STEM fields. One of the best ways to encourage this understanding is to provide students with meaningful experiences in science, math, and technology from an early age. Doing so allows students to form a foundation on which to build future studies in these fields. It can also provide an introduction to STEM that prevents common misconceptions about STEM and gender from taking root.

As students move through the educational system, the availability of diverse and engaging STEM courses remains an important means of closing the gender gap. High schools with a more robust selection of math and science classes observe smaller gaps in STEM achievements between male and female seniors. However, high school STEM courses most often consist of biology, chemistry, and mathematics. Going forward, a wider availability of high school courses in physics, engineering, and computer science could help inspire female students to pursue these fields.

Educators working at the collegiate level can do their part to close the STEM gender gap by working to create a learning environment that is welcoming and supportive of all students. Developing STEM programs that offer women a sense of inclusion does not necessitate launching gender-focused marketing campaigns or segregating classes by gender. It merely requires that school administrators plan courses with an understanding of student’s unique skill levels and perceptions of STEM fields.

Female students may choose not to enroll in entry level STEM courses because they incorrectly believe that male students have more preexisting experience in STEM. To address this, schools such as Harvey Mudd College have designed separate introductory STEM courses to cater to students who either have some experience with the topics, or who are entirely unfamiliar with them.

It is also important for students to be aware of the accomplishments of STEM professionals who are female. One study conducted found that, although women tended to receive higher final grades than their male counterparts, they felt less confidence and interest in the subject matter when being taught by a male professor. The presence of a relatable mentor or role model can inspire confidence in aspiring female STEM professionals.

A greater degree of collaboration between STEM business sectors and the academic community may help introduce aspiring female STEM professionals to role models in their favored fields. For example, if more students were aware that female engineers had developed many of Facebook’s most important features, they might be less likely to view engineering and programming as masculine domains.