Low-Achieving Boys Opt for STEM Careers More Than Most Girls Do

By Sarah D. Sparks — June 26, 2020 3 min read

Gender gaps in the most male-dominated science fields don’t come from men outperforming women academically in those subjects, but from the simple fact that overwhelmingly more boys than girls opt for those careers in spite of lackluster science skills.

Boys and girls with the very highest math and science skills chose to major in physics, engineering, and computer science—three fields with a 4-1 male-to-female ratio in the workplace—at roughly the same rates, finds a new study in the journal Science. But the gender gap widened for students at all other achievement levels, and young men stay in the fields longer than young women with much higher initial science and math skills.

New York University researchers led by Joseph Cimpian, an associate professor of economics and education policy, looked at federal data on more than 6,000 students over seven years, from the start of high school until midway through college. They gauged students’ science skills using a combination of math SAT scores, math and science grades in high school, and scores on math and science tests given as part of a federal longitudinal study.

“Those that are higher in STEM achievement are more likely to go into these math-heavy fields, and you see that for both men and women,” Cimpian said, “but what’s more pronounced is that the women aren’t going into these math-intensive fields unless they are above average—and really oftentimes much further above average—while men start going into these fields even if they are lower-achieving.”

For example, about 10 percent of the men whose science and math performance had been in the lowest 1 percent in high school went on to study physics, engineering, or computer science in college. The rate of women entering those fields didn’t reach that percentage level except among students in the top 20 percent of all math and science achievement.

Among the highest-performing students, much of the gender gap could be explained by lower feelings of confidence and self-efficacy among girls than boys. And prior studies have found children begin to develop gender stereotypes about certain fields as early as age 7 that affect their career preferences as teenagers. But the NYU researchers found that among students with lower achievement levels, boys and girls did not show significant differences in self-confidence, interest in science, academic mindsets, or even having a math or science “identity.”

Overall, by college nearly 24 percent of men but only 5.5 percent of women chose to go into physics, engineering, or computer science, and those women had higher-than-average math and science skills.

That aligns with prior studies, which have found male students are much more likely to earn credit in engineering classes than female students were—but the girls who did take those classes matched or outperformed their male classmates on the NAEP’s math and science tests.

This pattern can exacerbate gender stereotypes in the male-dominated fields, Cimpian said, because while men from all different skill levels see themselves represented in classes, women and men see only women who are “the highest-achieving, maybe even superstars.”

He urged K-12 educators to try to draw broader ranges of girls into activities like coding and robotics clubs. “When we think about a lot of the ways that we try to get women into these fields, ... we have a tendency as educators to look to the highest-achieving and think, ‘well, these girls have really demonstrated something.’ We don’t necessarily seek out the average and lower-achieving girls,” he said. “In the ways that we’re actually trying to support women and encourage them to be in these fields, we have to think, what is the selection process that we go by to select those women? It is different probably from what we’re doing for men.”

Cimpian also plans to study whether the same pattern holds true for men in career fields traditionally dominated by women, including nursing and teaching. There’s already evidence that anti-male bias and societal views about teachers’ status can tamp down the interest of all but the most-committed male teachers.

Video: Researchers at New York University’s Steinhardt School discuss differences in how academic achievement affects men’s and women’s decisions to enter physics, engineering, and computer science. Source: New York University.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.