Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The STEM fields: What is keeping women out?

We all know that gender is a major factor in education, and that women are disproportionately disadvantaged within academia.

Actually, only half of that was true. Gender is important in education, but by the numbers females outperform males on nearly every level of academic achievement. For example, the US Department of Education reported that while enrollment rates in primary and secondary schools are nearly evenly split, 57% of all people in postsecondary education are women. While in high school, girls are less likely to be held back, more likely to graduate, and even outnumber boys in AP science and language classes (USDoE 2012). In the post-baccalaureate scene, more degrees have been awarded to women since 1988 (Snyder and Dillow 2013).

However, we still find a large gender gap at college in many of the STEM fields. A 2010 report from the American Association of University Women (Hill et al 2010) found that in 2006, 29.3% of freshmen males intended on majoring in a STEM field while only 15.1% of freshmen females did. At graduation, women received more diplomas in biological, agricultural, and chemistry majors than men, but were outnumbered in all other STEM categories, and at the doctorate level male PhD’s outnumbered female ones in every STEM field, though not always by very much. In the workforce at large, women hold less than a fourth of all STEM jobs (Beede et al 2011)

As such, there has been a significant push to get more girls into STEM majors, but when it comes down to it we’re not entirely certain why girls enroll less in those majors in the first place. There are several different theories: Riegle-Crum et al (2006) found that the academic choices of same-sex friends had a significant effect on what courses a girl would take; others such as Bix (2004) argue that it is primarily a matter of gender norms within the fields themselves; Sax (2001) affirms that there are structural barriers to women in the STEM fields, but suggests that inherent differences between the sexes might drive part of the gap; while Feldman (1999) found that personality type and academic environment were the best predictors for major choice. Conventional wisdom supplies the idea of gendered careers—hard sciences and business for the boys, education and social sciences for the girls—and many in the literature have suggested that this kind of socialization early on in life could be driving the difference.

I would like to add a few words onto the idea of gender expectations and career choice. As I mentioned above, conventional wisdom has an idea of masculine and feminine career paths. In addition, our society has preconceived notions of the traditional role of men and women in life and the family—stereotypically with the man as husband, professional, and breadwinner and the woman as wife, homemaker, and mother. I wanted to see what affect these traditional notions had on my own peers and their career choices interviewed a few dozen, both men and women. There interviews were loosely structured but always included the following questions:

What is your major and why did you choose it?
Did your gender, in any way, affect your choice of major?
Does your major and future career fit into what society expects of you as a man/woman?
Do you anticipate any conflict with your chosen career and your personal life? How do you plan on balancing the two?
Do you think your family life or society affected your personal aspirations?
Why is it important for a man/woman to get higher education?

While my small sample size and non-random selection don’t allow for any external validity, the results are still interesting.

The respondents ran a wide range of careers for both genders, from the arts to the sciences. Half of the men did not feel that gender in any way affected their choice of major, and just as many of the women said gender only had a tangential affect and other factors, usually family, were more important. Only one male and one female felt that their chosen career fit into what society expected of them—an aspiring medical student and medical scientist, respectively. Surprisingly, some of the men in0 stereotypically “masculine” fields felt that their chosen vocation did not fit with society’s expectations, including a mathematician. The women who did not feel like their career fit with societal expectations were usually aspiring for leadership roles.

 A fourth of the women said that they had been encouraged or inspired by family members to go for their chosen career, something which only one man reported. Every person anticipated a conflict between professional and personal life, though slightly more women than men had put much thought into balancing the two. Two-thirds of both genders said that education was important for both men and women.

Perhaps most interestingly, personal interest was overwhelmingly given as the reason for career choice. While gender was a consideration for several of the women, none of the respondents reported choosing a career because it was appropriate or proper for their gender—to the contrary, three of the women said that they wanted to prove that they could be successful in their chosen field as women. Furthermore, the only person who said that they would sacrifice their career for family was a man, and the only person who said that the career came before family was a woman.

What are we to take from this? While this says nothing about the US population, at least among my peer group personal interest was the primary motivator of career choice, above all other considerations. Gender and upbringing may have very well shaped those interests—and several of the respondents suspect that they did—but none of those I interviewed mentioned societal expectations, family pressure, peer groups, or the gender stereotypes about their fields as a deciding factor in their choice of major. As such, among people like those I interviewed, the presence of the gap in STEM fields is primarily a lack of interest.

And perhaps we should not find that so surprising. There are many fields where women outnumber men, both at the collegiate and professional level, but we are quick to attribute those gaps to a lack of interest on part of the men. Might at least part of the STEM gap be explained the same way? Whether or not the genders should have an equal interest is another conversation entirely, but I for one find it comforting that both men and women feel that they can pursue careers which they enjoy, whether or not those careers fit into gender stereotypes.


Beede, David, Tiffany Julian, David Jangdon, George McKittrick, Beethika Khan, and Mark Doms. 2011. “Women in STEM: A gender gap to innovation.” US Department of Commerce: Economics and Statistics Administration.

Bix, Amy Sue. 2004. From “engineeresses” to “girl engineers” to “good engineers”: A history of women’s U.S. engineering education.

Feldman, Kenneth A. 1999. Major field selection and person-environment fit: Using Holland’s theory to study change and stability of college students. Journal of Higher Education 70, no. 6 (November/December): 642-669.

Hill, Catherine, Christianne Corbett, and Andresse St Rose. “Why so few? Women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.” American Association of University Women. Washington DC.

Riegel-Crumb, Catherine, George Farkas, and Chandra Muller. 2006. The role of gender and friendship in advanced course taking. Sociology of Education 79, no. 3 (July).

Sax, Linda J. 2001. Undergraduate sciences majors: Gender differences in who goes to graduate school. The Review of Higher Education 24, no. 2 (Winter): 153-172.

Snyder, Thomas D., and Sally A Dillow. 2013. Digest of education statistics: 2012. National Center for Education Statistics.  

US Department of Education. 2012. “Gender equity in  education: A data snapshot.” Office for Civil Rights. 

Photograph from UMass Ahearst website:

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