Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) is a field bursting with new discovery and promise. Historically, women have been underrepresented in all science fields, and STEM is no different. While the workforce is 47% women, in the STEM fields, women hold a much lower percentage of jobs based in the hard sciences:

  • Chemist and material scientists – 39%
  • Environmental and geoscientists – 27.9%
  • Industrial engineers – 17.2%
  • Chemical engineers – 15.6%
  • Civil engineers – 12.1%
  • Electrical and electronic engineers – 8.3%
  • Mechanical engineers – 7.2%

To illustrate further the historical trend of discouraging girls from working in STEM fields, one need only look at course enrollments for K-12 and secondary education. In high school, a higher percentage of girls (37%) than boys (34%) take precalculus/analysis, and the same holds true for algebra II (78% of girls and 74% of boys). This changes significantly in college. Even though women earn 50.4% of all science and engineering bachelor’s degrees awarded, their field of study shifts significantly. Women graduating with degrees in computer sciences (18.2%), engineering (19.2%), and physics (19.1%) are rare.

The reasons for the lack of women in these fields are examined in a 2010 AAUW report entitled Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Study authors Catherine Hill, Ph.D. Christianne Corbett, and Andresse St. Rose, Ed.D. unpacked eight research findings regarding why women and girls have been historically underrepresented in STEM fields of work and study.

1. Beliefs about intelligence

This research addressed Carol Dweck’s findings that mindset can be classified as “fixed” or “growth.” Those individuals with a fixed mindset believe that intelligence remains the same, and those with a growth mindset believe that intelligence in malleable and can be developed. Dweck and her team specifically looked at mathematics and motivation, as math is typically viewed as a field with fixed skills. Even in this field, though, students who exhibited a growth mindset were more likely to do better than those with a fixed mindset.

Dweck’s research applies to girls in STEM fields in the future because girls tend to have more of a growth mindset and can say, (in Dweck’s words), “OK, maybe girls haven’t done well historically, maybe we weren’t encouraged, maybe we didn’t believe in ourselves, but these are acquirable skills.”

2. Stereotypes

Not to put too fine a point on it, Joshua Aronson has found in his research that:

“Girls do every bit as well in their graded work

[as] boys [do], but girls lose confidence as they advance through the grades and will start to do more poorly than boys on the timed tests, despite getting good grades. One reason for this loss of confidence is the stereotyping that kids are exposed to—in school and the media and even in the home—that portrays boys as more innately gifted [in math]. Without denying the fact that boys may have some biological advantage, I think that psychology plays a big role here.”

3. Self-assessment

How girls evaluate their abilities plays a large role in whether or not they pursue STEM fields. Shelley Correll of the University of Wisconsin Madison points out that:

“Boys do not pursue mathematical activities at a higher rate than girls do because they are better at mathematics. They do so, at least partially, because they think they are better.”

4. Spatial skills

Spatial skills is an area in which men traditionally outscore women significantly, but it is also an area that can be developed over time. “Most engineering faculty have highly developed 3-D spatial skills and may not understand that others can struggle with a topic they find so easy,” says Sheryl Sorby. “Furthermore, they may not believe that spatial skills can be improved through practice, falsely believing that this particular skill is one that a person is either “born with” or not. They don’t understand that they probably developed these skills over many years.”

5. The college student experience

This speaks to the idea that the culture of STEM majors in college create an “insider-outsider” bias in which women are not only not encouraged to join but are, in some cases, discouraged from joining. Jane Margolis, a senior researcher at the UCLA graduate school of education and information studies, puts it this way:

“There is a subset of boys and men who burn with a passion for computers and computing. Through the intensity of their interest, they both mark the field as male and enshrine in its culture their preference for single-minded intensity and focus on technology.”

6. University and college faculty

From a survey conducted by Cathy Trower, research director of the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE) at Harvard University, and her peers, researchers found that among the 130 colleges and universities that used their annually-administered Tenure-Track Faculty Job Satisfaction Survey:

“Female STEM faculty were less satisfied than their male peers were with all ten factors [that measure satisfaction with a job] and significantly less satisfied with three: sense of fit, opportunities to collaborate with senior colleagues, and the perception of fair treatment of junior faculty in one’s department.”

7. Implicit bias

Implicit bias is the bias that exists even as schools and workplaces insist that there are no limits to the education and jobs available to people of both genders. This bias is often institutionalized, reinforced by stereotypes in media of all kinds, and difficult to uncover and address. Minority women are doubly impacted by this bias.

8. Workplace bias

Women in the STEM workplace have twice the job as men; research in 2004 revealed that women in STEM fields were viewed as either competent or likeable but not both. This bias in the workplace affects everything from peer interaction on the job to who is considered for promotion.

Further complicating this is the “hidden quota” system whereby companies aim to place just one woman in a top position – decreasing the likelihood of hiring another by 50%. This bias extends to compensation as well. While the pay gap between men and women in academic fields existed in only six of 24 fields, those fields were nearly all in STEM: assistant and full professors in economics, life science assistant professors, associate and full professors in engineering and the physical sciences, and full professors in geoscience.

Each one of these factors is explained in much more detail in the AAUW report and is accompanied by recommendations for educators, parents, and people of both genders.

The news is not all glum, however:

There may still be a long road ahead, but every step forward helps women get closer to equal representation in the STEM fields. For more ways on supporting your daughter’s interest in STEM, visit this Girls in STEM page.

Image by Lab Science Career via Flickr