The Gender Gap – Part II – Why?

It’s no secret that a gender gap exists in reading and writing within the classroom, with girls outpacing boys at a noticeable rate.  Focus has now turned to the gender gap inherent within the STEM field.

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  Many of the careers that fall under this category don’t even come close to having equal representation by women.  This means there is very real and distinct biases and attitudes when it comes to encouraging and supporting girls to participate in STEM programs. 

These attitudes are not prevalent when it comes to STEM subjects in the younger grades. Elementary and middle school female students do very well in all STEM subjects.  Researchers start to see a noticeable decline in female participation and achievement in STEM-related classes when these female students reach high school.

There could be several reasons why this happens:

  • At a young age, both female and male students are far more likely to describe a professional in a STEM-related field as being male and looking a certain way.
  • There are fewer female role models and mentors in STEM fields for girls to emulate.
  • STEM classes typically have multiple-choice assessments and girls do better with open-ended answers, like word problems and short essays.  Boys are more likely to guess unknown multiple-choice answers at a higher rate, which can lead to receiving higher test scores.
  • Female students are less likely to have STEM-related enrichment activities outside of school.   This means they are less likely to take advanced STEM classes in high school and college.  Digging further by adding the racial makeup of STEM programs, black and Latino female students are in the super minority in STEM programs.  This is also true of any female student in lower-income areas.

Other factors that influence the gender gap in STEM include:

  • Female students feel peer pressure around not asking too many questions or bringing too much attention to themselves.
  • Females are more likely to be people-pleasers and try to make others happy at the expense of themselves.
  • Female students are less likely to be encouraged to succeed in STEM-related subject areas by parents and teachers.
  • While boys are pushed to take risks, girls are pushed to play it safe.
  • Female students lose interest in STEM subjects when they are not connected to real-world applications.

While school districts don’t intentionally guide girls away from STEM, many of the unrealized biases and attitudes are in play that discourage girls from becoming involved in STEM, especially in the long term.    

On average, women make up only 28% of the workforce in STEM, with a much higher rate as biological scientists at 46%.  Females only make up 16.5% of the workforce in engineering and architecture. Over the past few years, women have started earning 53% of STEM-related college degrees.  Female representation may well be on the upswing in STEM careers.  This could be the result of the latest women’s movement to stand up and be counted.  It’s also a result of young parents guiding their daughters to be whatever they want be and confirming they can do anything.