A recent study by The University of Texas at Austin has found that young women don’t avoid so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) majors and professions for lack of math and science skills. Rather, they are choosing other disciplines in spite of their skills in these traditionally masculine fields.
Questioning gender stereotypes
“I think we need to be asking, ’What do females who are highly qualified in math and science find more attractive in the fields of study they choose, and, more importantly, why are these features more attractive to them?’ ” said Catherine Riegle-Crumb, assistant professor in UT’s College of Education’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction and lead investigator for the study.
“Females are making a choice for something, not just against STEM majors and professions.
“These choices could be due to social structures that are pervasive and lifelong and that are shaping their preferences and ideas about what girls do versus what boys do. One of the most fascinating questions to answer is why and how some females resist cultural expectations and do pursue degrees in engineering.”
Surveying STEM skills data
The study, which was published in the American Educational Research Journal, analyzed nationally representative data on STEM skills attainment in high school and subsequent choice of major, broken down by gender.
“When we looked at relative strengths between subjects rather than absolute levels of achievement, we noted that girls tended to outperform boys in English courses, for example, and to be the top scorers,” said Riegle-Crumb. “It’s not that they did poorly in high school math and science classes — it’s that they did even better in English and have a comparative advantage.”
In fact, “girls in the U.S. have been out-performing boys in math and science classes for some time,” said Lisa Wade, associate professor and chairwoman of the sociology department at Occidental College in Los Angeles, who has addressed the issue on her blog.
“Their performance in math and science classes, however, doesn’t predict whether they’ll go into related careers. Many high-performing girls choose not to, and many low-performing boys do. This is partly because women are pushed out of such careers because they are so strongly associated with men and masculinity or because they encounter hostility, but it’s also because they are pulled out: women strongly out-perform boys in skills related to other types of careers, so sometimes they choose those instead.”
Studying the role of culture
“I see so many talented young women with strong interest in STEM, including physics (which has one of the lowest percentages of women)—I know these fields are attractive to them, until something changes their minds,” said Meg Urry, chair of the physics department at Yale University and director of the Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics.
“The problems have to be about culture and environment. The enormous differences between countries in the percentage of scientists and engineers who are women demonstrates this very clearly.”
“I’m afraid all the evidence points to obstacles and discouragement for women going into STEM fields in the U.S.,” Urry continued, adding: “The good news is, this means we can greatly increase the participation of women in STEM, if only we can remove these obstacles and substitute encouragement for its opposite.”
Samantha Bonar is an author and freelance writer based in Pasadena, Calif.