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Published in Print: June 17, 2009, as Researchers Mull STEM Gender Gap

Researchers Mull STEM Gender Gap

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Intrigued by the interviews with high school valedictorians that the Raleigh, N.C., News & Observer publishes this time each year, researcher E. Anne York decided to gather up three years’ worth of its stories to look for any gender differences in the aspirations of these highest-achieving local students.

Were boys more likely to strive for careers in engineering and math and to aim for more-selective colleges? Were girls opting for the humanities and the so-called “caring sciences,” such as medicine?

The answer was yes. While the sciences were a popular choice of college majors overall for this select sample of 150 valedictorians from seven counties, the boys were more likely than the girls to say they planned to study math, computer science, or engineering. The girls gravitated to the humanities and social sciences. And, even though the two groups had virtually identical GPAs, the boys were more likely to enroll in highly competitive colleges.

Ms. York’s study, it turns out, provides a pretty apt description of the national picture on gender representation in the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. At a time when growing numbers of studies show that U.S. women have achieved parity, or are close to it, on science and math achievement tests, men still outnumber women at the top levels of many of those fields, particularly in quantitative sciences such as engineering and math.

A handful of studies over the past few years are beginning to suggest that there may be a simple explanation for the persistent gender gaps in those fields. Women may just not want to pursue high-level careers in math and science, whether because they’re not interested in those fields or because they perceive them to be less compatible with the family lives they hope to shape for themselves.

“One of the other things that has to be filtered into the mix is that those girls who, at a young age, have high quantitative scores are also more likely to have high verbal scores than boys are,” said Stephen J. Ceci, a psychologist from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., who is writing a book on the topic. “They have more options, so they can go to law school or they can go into the humanities.”

But some scholars suggest the point is not that women are making free choices, but that the choices they’re making are uninformed or constrained in some way.

“If you’re not aware of something that at some point might interest you, how can you choose it?” said Karen Peterson, the principal investigator for a National Science Foundation-funded project based in Seattle called National Girls Collaborative Project.

Parity With Boys?

Experts along the continuum of opinion agree that the issue is becoming increasingly important, given all the worry that the United States may be losing its competitive edge over the rest of the world in science and engineering fields. If more women were to enter the STEM fields and succeed in them at high levels, experts reason, the United States could expand its pipeline for math and science talent.

But what really drove a lot of researchers to take a closer look at the nation’s progress in eliminating gender disparities in mathematics and science was a tempest that erupted four years ago when Lawrence Summers, then the president of Harvard University, suggested in a speech that women’s underrepresentation in university math and science departments was due to “different availability of aptitude at the high end.”

Tracking Ph.D. Progress

The percentage of U.S. mathematics Ph.D.s awarded to women by decade has grown.

The resulting studies, a few of which have begun to appear in journals over the past few months, show that during the K-12 years, girls have pretty much caught up with their male counterparts in mathematics and science. Even in high school, where previous research has shown that gender differences open up, studies show that girls are taking calculus at the same rate as boys, though they still lag a bit in physics.

In the main, high school girls also score at the same levels as boys do on math and science sections of college-entrance exams and on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, tests in those subjects. In a study published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, two researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and its medical school—Janet S. Hyde and Janet E. Mertz—dug into the NAEP tests a little deeper to see if gender differences emerged on more complex, problem-solving questions. They characterized the gaps they found as trivial.

“These findings provide further evidence that U.S. girls have now reached parity with boys, even in high school, and even for complex problem-solving,” they conclude.

Still, researchers said some small gender differences continue to show up among the very highest-achieving students­—the top one in 10,000 students, for instance, or the one-in-a-million children who compete in international math “olympiads”—but a majority of professors don’t fall in that category, according to experts.

Moreover, those gaps are rapidly closing, and they vary markedly from country to country.

Some other tests, though, continue to show that women lag in a few more-specific areas of quantitative expertise, such as spatial skills, which are important in fields such as engineering.

Home vs. Career

When it comes to employment or very advanced academics, the gender gaps appear to burst wide open again. Although in some fields, such as the biological sciences, women now earn nearly half of all doctoral degrees, their percentages are far lower in other STEM fields, according to an exhaustive research synthesisRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader that Mr. Ceci and two of his Cornell colleagues, Wendy M. Williams and Susan M. Barnett, published in March in the Psychological Bulletin.

Their study showed that, in 2006, women received 30 percent of the doctoral degrees in the physical sciences, 32 percent of the mathematics doctorates, and 17 percent of the doctorates in engineering. The percentages of women on university faculty rosters in those fields, however, are even lower, the study says.

The authors calculate that if women were to enter math-intensive fields at a rate proportionate to their tested ability levels, their numbers would double.

One reason for the imbalance, Mr. Ceci’s paper shows, is that women leave STEM careers at twice the rate that men do.

“I think not every math department is welcoming to women, and some women fall prey to the stereotype that women can’t do math,” said Ms. Hyde, a psychology professor at Wisconsin.

But Mr. Ceci also thinks the reason for the exodus may be that more women than men, by a ratio of 3-to-1, identify themselves as “home-centered” rather than “careerist.” They might find that the long hours of work required to succeed at high levels in those fields conflict with child-rearing responsibilities, the bulk of which continue to fall on their shoulders.

Ms. York makes a similar observation in her North Carolina valedictorian study, which was published last summer in the Journal of Advanced Academics.

“Women tend to look for careers where you can combine work and family,” said Ms. York, an economist at Meredith College in Raleigh. “Even in high school, they are are thinking, ‘How do I want to combine work and family?’ and “Is a high-paying job all that important to me?’

Her study also showed that the careers that female valedictorians expressed interest in paid roughly three-quarters as much as those that their male counterparts chose–about the same size as the gender gap in earnings that statistics have identified at the national level.

Promoting STEM Careers

As for the gender schism cropping up within the sciences, experts say girls may be choosing health- and environmental-related fields because they see them as being more compassionate professions.

“If engineering were to portray itself as an occupation in a new way—maybe as something that helps people—they’d get more women in the occupation,” said Ms. Hyde. “I promise you that.”

Margaret A. Eisenhart, a professor of educational anthropology and research methodology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, is among those who think the key issue is girls’ lack of exposure to careers in the STEM fields. She tracked a group of 50 to 60 high-achieving Colorado girls, most of whom were members of racial or ethnic minorities, from the time they were 10th graders until this year, when they graduated from high school.

The girls were exposed to engineering careers through a program in which they developed their own innovations, learned about cutting-edge applications in the field, and networked via BlackBerries with women engineers in a range of fields. By the time the girls finished their junior year, half had expressed an interest in pursuing engineering careers.

“We found it really quite easy to get them interested,” Ms. Eisenhart said. For those who were unable to follow through with their plans, the obstacles arose from financial constraints, immigration problems, and a lack of academic preparation in high school, rather than from any change of heart.

“I agree with the apparent fact that achievement levels are evening out, and I agree with the idea that men and women make somewhat different choices,” she said. “But my main point is that when people have the ability and choose, that they do it based on some information and knowledge of what the possibilities are.”

“And that information is very scant for women in high school,” she added, “with respect to careers in STEM fields and engineering.”

Vol. 28, Issue 35, Pages 1,15

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In an earlier version of this story E. Anne York's name was misspelled.

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