Why Girls in STEM?
I began my research under the assumption that a gender gap exists within STEM fields favoring men over women. These graphs from the CDC show tnat my assumptions were correct. We are certainly making progress, as there is not as much of a disparity between men and women in life and physical sciences, but only about 10% of engineers and 20% of computer scientists are women. The fields in which the disparity is small are encouraging, but when we look at the median earnings by gender the differences are very significant. If this gap exists later on in life, I assume that there must be a point in many girls’ lives in which they decide that STEM is not something for them. Why do girls decide early on that they don’t identify with science and what can we do about this to diversify our work field and the advancements that are made within science?
When searching for why this disparity within STEM still exists, I found three main arguments: girls often hold lower levels of competency belief than boys, stereotype threat acts as a preventative factor from allowing girls to enter and continue within difficult STEM classes and fields, and there is a lack of role models within STEM fields who make girls and women feel welcome in the STEM environment.
Competency belief refers to believing that one’s natural abilities within a subject correlate to the amount of success that is possible within that subject. This is important within STEM because girls often have lower competency beliefs in science than boys. One study found that when girls participate in optional science experiences outside of the classroom their competency belief and test scores both go up, while there was no real effect on boys. Oftentimes, the successes of boys within science are attributed to natural talent, whereas girls’ successes are attributed to hardwork. For this reason, some girls who do not find STEM to be easy or something that comes naturally to them might discredit themselves as potential future scientists pretty early on in their education.
The graph to the left compares the amount of ability belief in each field to the percentage of women who are Ph. D’s in that field. The top shows STEM fields and the bottom shows humanities. In fields that value being “naturally gifted” more, women were less likely to get Ph. D’s than in the fields which value hard work over brilliance. It can be seen that this is not only an issue in STEM fields but also in the humanities. There are much fewer female philosophy and music composition Ph. D’s than men.
According to Shapiro & Williams, “Stereotype threat is a concern or anxiety that one’s performance or actions can be seen through the lens of a negative stereotype.” This concern can negatively affect one’s performance in stereotyped fields. Stereotype threat is seen in multiple studies which activate the idea of gender before taking tests. In one study, girls either answered questions about their gender before or after taking the AP calculus exam. Those that answered the gender questions before did significantly worse on the test than those who answered after regardless of their ability. In a field in which natural talent and success on examinations are considered to be very important, not being able to complete tests to one’s full potential could be detrimental to the consideration of a future in STEM for girls. One way to combat stereotype threat in STEM is to practice self-affirmation. This means that exploring other aspects of one’s identity actually takes away those negative results that appeared to ensue from the activation of gender.
Lack of Female Role Models/Specific Expectations for Women in STEM
Even though some STEM fields may seem to be more evenly distributed amongst men and women, the men still make more money. This implies that those who are higher up in terms of education or company order are generally male. There are generally greater expectations for women within science fields than men. One article describes this phenomenon as a “balancing act” between femininity and science that girls who enjoy STEM often must face. In a survey of a group of 6th graders and their parents about childrens’ interest in STEM, many girls and their families all emphasized being well-rounded and having traditionally feminine interests in addition to liking science. The parents of girls who were more antisocial expressed concern that their daughters were more interested in school and science than the things that little girls are normally interested in. The parents of boys who were more school-driven and didn’t have many other extracurriculars did not express the same concerns. It seems that being a girl who likes STEM is not enough in the eyes of society in many cases, which could be a big discouraging factor for girls.
Archer, L., DeWitt, J., Osborne, J., Dillon, J., Willis, B., & Wong, B. (2012). “Balancing Acts”: Elementary School Girls’ Negotiations of Femininity, Achievement, and Science. Science Education, 96(6), 967–989.http://dx.doi.org.proxy048.nclive.org/10.1002/sce.21031
Leslie, S.-J., Cimpian, A., Meyer, M., & Freeland, E. (2015). Expectations of brilliance underlie gender distributions across academic disciplines. Science, 347(6219), 262–265. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1261375
Shapiro, J. R., & Williams, A. M. (2012). The Role of Stereotype Threats in Undermining Girls’ and Women’s Performance and Interest in STEM Fields. Sex Roles, 66(3–4), 175–183. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-011-0051-0
Vincent-Ruz, P., & Schunn, C. D. (2017). The increasingly important role of science competency beliefs for science learning in girls. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 54(6), 790–822. https://doi.org/10.1002/tea.21387