Op-ed by Dr. Catherine Riegle-Crumb
Associate Professor, Curriculum and Instruction
In the U.S. and many other developed countries, young females are entering college at higher rates than males and are more likely to graduate and earn a degree. Even so, we certainly can’t say that gender inequality is no longer a problem.
Reality is that women remain less likely than men to enter many science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields in college, a factor that contributes to their relatively lower occupational earnings. The under-representation of women in STEM fields is particularly problematic given the rapid growth of STEM-related job sectors and the national need for more workers with STEM degrees and skills.
So why aren’t more women taking STEM classes and earning college degrees in STEM subjects?
An explanation still commonly heard is that females’ math and science skills and achievement are inferior to males’ and, consequently, they’re not as qualified. Recent research offers strong empirical evidence that refutes this conventional wisdom, though.
According to research, female students consistently earn higher grades in math and science K-12 classes and take advanced courses at the same rates as males. While there remains a small male advantage on some standardized math and science exams, this minor disparity doesn’t begin to explain the large gender gap in who chooses STEM fields in college and beyond.
It can be tempting to take a very narrow view of this issue. One might say that since no one is actively keeping young college women from entering STEM fields, then they have the same opportunity to pursue these fields as men. Or, to put it differently, if young women have the same (or better) chances of going to college as young men and they happen to choose non-STEM fields, then this is simply a matter of choice, right?
While it’s appealing in its simplicity, such a narrow perspective ignores the many ways society continues to limit women’s educational choices by telling them math and science aren’t feminine and that those subjects are really better suited to men and boys.
My own research addresses this topic and finds that young women continue to be subjected to biases and stereotypes about their math ability. Numerous other researchers in education, sociology, and psychology have gathered evidence that girls receive less encouragement from parents and peers to pursue STEM fields, and that they are continuously exposed to social messages (including those from the media) about their presumed inferiority to boys. These messages may be subtle but are nonetheless powerful – indeed, their less overt nature arguably makes them more effective.
Anyone can point to a single instance of bias, such as a teacher always calling on boys in math class before calling on girls, and argue that it’s unintentional and not significant enough to worry about. Yet these kinds of experiences begin early at school and in the home, and they continue to accumulate over many years.
Therefore, if we want to increase the number of women who enter and are successful in STEM fields, we have to think hard about how individuals’ choices are not nearly as free as we might want to believe. Rather, the choices that young women make are severely constrained by social and cultural forces that shape what they think is possible.
The good news is that there are things we can do to change how girls view their future possibilities, such as providing more opportunities for them to interact with positive female role models, and educating current and future math and science teachers about how to create more gender equitable classrooms. Also, we could all do our part to discourage the constant social dialogue about how “boys and girls are just so different.”
If we accomplish these changes, we can give girls and young women an opportunity to see their educational and occupational futures as not fundamentally dictated by their gender, but open to endless possibilities.