24 July 2020

Women Skipping STEM

Welcome back. If you don’t mind terribly, I’d like to expand a bit on my last blog post, The More Brilliant Gender. That post reviewed a study that demonstrated how people implicitly conceive of brilliance and genius as male more than female traits despite the lack of any gender difference in intellectual ability.

The issue isn’t really which gender is more brilliant but that women are underrepresented in fields perceived to require high-level intellectual ability, such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The concern is that the male-brilliance stereotype might (i) arise from observing the distribution of women and men in these fields, (ii) cause those working in the fields to perceive women as unsuited and (iii) undermine women's inclination to pursue careers in the fields.

Highlighting the last, a recently published study by researchers affiliated with Cornell, Tel Aviv and Johns Hopkins universities traced women’s underrepresentation in STEM fields to gender differences that emerge in high school.

Educational Longitudinal Surveys
The source of data for the analysis was the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002, in which the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics monitored a nationally representative sample of young people from 10th-grade (high school sophomores) in 2002 through 2012.

The data included base-year questionnaire surveys in 2002 and follow-up surveys in 2004, 2006 and 2012. Schools provided high school transcripts in 2005, and additional information was collected from other sources, such as the American Council on Education (General Educational Development test data) and SAT/ACT (entrance exam scores).
Education Longitudinal Study of 2002 base-year to third follow-up school and student response rates, 2002-13 (Table A-1 from nces.ed.gov/pubs2014/2014363.pdf).
Approximately 10 years after their 10th-grade year, 19% were working for pay and taking postsecondary courses, 63% were working for pay only, 5% were taking postsecondary courses only and 13% were neither working for pay nor taking postsecondary courses. Education-wise, 33% had earned bachelor’s degrees or higher, 9% associate’s degrees, 10% undergraduate certificates, 32% postsecondary attendance but no credential, 13% high school diplomas or equivalent and 3% hadn’t graduated high school.

Women’s Underrepresentation in STEM
The researchers found that, of the college entrants who graduated high school in 2004, men were more than twice as likely as women to complete bachelor's degrees in STEM fields, including premed, and men were more likely to persist in STEM/biomedical after entering these majors by their sophomore year in college.

Seeking possible reasons for the gender and persistence gaps in STEM, the researchers showed gender differences in high school academic achievement, math test scores, advanced math and science courses, self-assessed math ability and attitudes toward family and work were only minor factors. 

What stood out from the surveys were the responses to one question in the 2002 baseline survey, repeated in 2004--Where did they see themselves at age 30.
Education Longitudinal Study of 2002 survey question asked in base year and first follow-up regarding occupational plans (from nces.ed.gov/surveys/els2002/questionnaires.asp).
The gender gaps in STEM outcomes were strongly associated with gender differences in high school students' occupational plans. Among high school senior boys, 26% planned to enter STEM or biomedical occupations, compared with 13% of girls, while 15% of girls planned to enter nursing or similar health occupations compared with 4% of boys.

Wrap Up
The study results suggest that efforts to reduce gender differences in STEM outcomes need to begin early in students' educational careers. The researchers judge that achieving the objective will be difficult in the face of the underrepresentation of women in STEM, which influences young women's beliefs about the types of occupations where they will be welcome and rewarded fairly. But there’s lots that can be done. 

Brownie and Girl Scout Troop students conducting hands-on experiments at Johns Hopkins University’s Montgomery County Campus (from mcc.jhu.edu/news/girl-scout-troops-learn-science-at-jhu).
Thanks for stopping by.

Status of women in STEM from World Economic Forum: www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/02/stem-gender-inequality-researchers-bias/
Education Longitudinal Study of 2002: nces.ed.gov/pubs2014/2014363.pdf
Education Longitudinal Study of 2002 questionnaires: nces.ed.gov/surveys/els2002/questionnaires.asp
Study of gender differences in STEM in Sociology of Education journal: journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0038040720928484
Article on study from Cornell Chronicle: news.cornell.edu/stories/2020/07/gender-gaps-stem-college-majors-emerge-high-school

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