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Equity & Diversity

Gender Gaps Persist in STEM Subjects

June 12, 2012 8 min read
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Evidence abounds that women have made huge inroads in the academic and professional spheres since the federal Title IX law on gender equity in education was enacted 40 years ago.

More than half those graduating from college each year are women. The percentage of law degrees earned by females climbed from 7 percent in 1972 to about 47 percent in 2011. Likewise, far more women are earning advanced degrees in business and medicine.

Despite the gains, experts say some gender divides are still apparent, especially with participation in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Long before women pick a college major or enter the workforce, their K-12 education sets the stage in level of interest, confidence, and achievement in STEM. There, data suggest, some barriers continue to block girls. Heavy gender imbalances persist as well in some areas of career and technical education, from cosmetology to automotive mechanics.

“Broadly speaking, girls and women have made great strides in education,” said Lara S. Kaufmann, a senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center in Washington. “The days when girls were told blatantly that they can’t take advanced math are over. ... But there are still challenges to equity.”

In precollegiate education, the issue is more evident in some STEM disciplines than others.

Recent Advanced Placement data show representation of the sexes to be about the same—or even higher for girls—in certain courses, but some show striking gender contrasts.

For the class of 2011, boys dominated the computer-science course, representing 80 percent of test-takers, as well as the three AP physics courses. Boys accounted for 77 percent of those taking the physics exam for electricity and magnetism and 74 percent of mechanics exams. Also, 59 percent of those taking Calculus BC, the more advanced of two AP courses offered in the subject, were male.

Moreover, data from the AP and the National Assessment of Educational Progress indicate continued achievement gaps between boys and girls in STEM fields, especially science.

At a conference last month in Chicago, Russlynn H. Ali, the U.S. Department of Education’s assistant secretary for civil rights, said she sees work to be done at the secondary level.

“Girls are underrepresented ... in those taking AP physics,” she said, also noting disparities in math. “We want to study why that is. Obviously, there is ... recruitment that happens on AP. There is a kind of counseling that happens.”

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In fact, the office for civil rights is investigating a Colorado district to determine whether girls have fair and equitable access to AP math and science, and whether the district adequately prepares them in elementary and middle school for such courses.

Meanwhile, Title IX’s restrictions on single-sex education continue to spark debate. The American Civil Liberties Union in May sent “cease and desist” letters to districts in six states, claiming their single-sex programs may violate Title IX. The Education Department’s revision of Title IX regulations in 2006 was seen as making it easier for districts to offer single-sex classes.

Not Just Sports

Title IX is best known for promoting equal access to athletic programs for girls and women. But its reach is far broader, including such areas as sexual harassment and the rights of pregnant and parenting teenagers, as well as academic study in K-12 and higher education.

Before Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, many colleges and universities excluded women or set quotas and other policies, such as access to financial aid, that limited their enrollment, experts say. (Title IX generally does not cover admissions policies at private, four-year colleges, or at traditionally single-sex public institutions.)

At the K-12 level prior to Title IX, girls were often steered away from challenging academic coursework, especially in math and science, and if they were to consider a career outside the home, they often would be encouraged to pursue teaching or secretarial work. Girls also were routinely prevented from enrolling in vocational courses such as shop, which could be a pathway into a career, while boys often could not take home economics.

“Girls in school, if you mentioned that you wanted to be [a doctor], you were told that it was very hard to do and were overtly discouraged,” said Bernice Sandler, a senior scholar at the Women’s Research and Education Institute in Washington. “The assumption was that girls grow up, get married, and don’t work.”

“All kinds” of policies and practices limited opportunities for young women in high school and college, she added. Educators frequently conveyed the message, “ ‘You don’t really want to take advanced math, do you?’ It was often subtle but sometimes not,” she said.

Many experts say Title IX has been an important driver of change for women in academics and careers, though it’s not clear how much was specifically advanced by the law as distinguished from other societal shifts.

“It’s all mixed together in some melting pot of forces, economic and cultural and legal, that has moved women forward,” said Leila Brammer, a professor of communications studies at Gustavus Adolphus College, in St. Peter, Minn., who has written on Title IX. “And yet there are these blind spots where things haven’t happened as fast, or just haven’t happened.”

Concern remains widespread about the relative lack of women pursuing advanced study and careers in STEM fields. Recent federal data show just one-quarter of people working in those fields are women; one in seven engineers is female. Also, women trailed men in earning doctorates in many STEM fields, as of 2009, including computer science, engineering, chemistry, and math.

“Computing has one of the worst gender representations of any STEM discipline,” said Lucinda M. Sanders, the chief executive officer and co-founder of the National Center for Women & Information Technology, based in Boulder, Colo. “When you do find computing in high school, and it is rigorous, girls are very seldom represented in the classroom.”

Girls have made clear gains to close the achievement gap in math over time, based on NAEP. Results from 2011 show boys with a 1 point edge on the NAEP scale in the 4th and 8th grades. That difference is considered statistically significant.

In science, the gap is bigger, and widens at the secondary level.

NAEP science data for 2009 showed boys outperforming girls in the 4th, 8th, and 12th grades. The biggest gap was in 12th grade, where 26 percent of boys scored “proficient” or above, compared with 19 percent of girls. AP data for the class of 2011, meanwhile, show that in every STEM subject tested, the average score for girls trailed that of boys.

But Mimi E. Lufkin, the CEO of the National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity—a consortium of public and private entities based in Cochranville, Pa., that seeks to promote equity and diversity in classrooms and workplaces—points to another problem.

“What we see is that even for girls that are achieving, they’re not translating their academic success into career selection,” she said. “If we can’t get half of the population engaged in the STEM enterprise, we are in trouble.”

Linda Rosen, the CEP of Change the Equation, a Washington-based alliance of business executives that promotes STEM education, said she sees broader recognition of the problem today and more focus on finding solutions.

“There’s a great deal more knowledge of the need to pay attention to gender issues than was the case certainly 40 years ago, or even 10 years ago,” Ms. Rosen said. “There is a real growing understanding of this cultural stereotype [in STEM] that we’ve got.”

At the same time, she expressed some skepticism of whether Title IX compliance actions by the Education Department are the right approach, saying the key is initiatives that “reach girls at a formative age.”

Promising examples she cited include the National Girls Collaborative Project, an effort that has received funding from the National Science Foundation to promote STEM for girls, and GirlStart, which provides STEM-focused after-school programs and summer camps.

School Limits

Vocational education, meanwhile, has a history of gender disparities that observers say still have not been fully erased, despite some headway. Girls dominate programs in cosmetology, child care, and health services, while fields such as auto mechanics and construction remain heavily tilted toward boys.


Although Title IX prohibits gender-based enrollment restrictions in vocational programs, observers say a big government lever has been the federal vocational education law, now known as the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act. It has accountability requirements to ensure districts and postsecondary institutions make progress in closing male-female participation and completion gaps in “nontraditional” fields, defined as having fewer than 25 percent of students from one gender participate.

Alisha D. Hyslop, an assistant director at the Association for Career and Technical Education, in Alexandria, Va., said those who raise worries about a gender imbalance “have valid concerns in some places,” but she said much progress has been made and that federal laws and enforcement only go so far.

“Schools can’t force students to enroll in programs,” she said. “While there’s lots [schools] can do, at some point they’ve reached the limit.”

Ms. Lufkin from the equity alliance argues that the Perkins Act has been helpful. But she, too, said the challenges go beyond what any law can solve.

“We’re talking about social change,” she said, “and that takes, sometimes, generations.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 13, 2012 edition of Education Week as Gender Gaps Persist in STEM Education


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