U.S. Gets Poor Grades in Nurturing STEM Diversity

March 22, 2010 5 min read
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The nation’s K-12 education system gets an average grade of D for the job it does “engaging and nurturing” minorities to pursue careers in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and a D-plus for such performance with girls, based on results released today from a survey of female and minority chemists and chemical engineers.

Those polled also believe science teachers play a larger role than parents and others in inspiring an interest in science, with 70 percent saying teachers have the most influence at the elementary level, and nearly 90 percent saying teachers have the most influence at the high school level.

Meanwhile, another report out today, developed with support from the National Science Foundation, pulls together “a large and diverse body” of existing research providing evidence that social and environmental factors contribute to the “underrepresentation” of women in science and engineering.

That study, from the Washington-based American Association of University Women, offers a set of recommendations for educators, parents, and others, including a call to “spread the word about girls’ and women’s achievements in math and science” to combat negative stereotypes; teach girls that intellectual skills are “acquired,” and not simply the product of “innate talent”; and explain to girls that buying into negative stereotypes can diminish academic achievement. It also says that in high school, girls should be encouraged to take classes in calculus, physics, chemistry, computer science, and engineering when available.

The two new reports come amid strong and growing interest in promoting improved STEM education and stronger interest among young people in the subjects. President Barack Obama has joined in that push. (“Obama Unveils Projects to Bolster STEM Teaching,” Jan. 20, 2010.)

Earlier this month, a variety of leading business and industry groups announced the formation of a new national coalition on STEM education.

The top three causes identified in the survey of chemists and chemical engineers to explain the underrepresentation of women and minorities in the STEM fields were a lack of adequate science and math education programs in “poorer” school districts; persistent stereotypes that suggest STEM subjects aren’t for girls or minorities; and financial issues related to the cost of education.

“If we want to achieve true diversity in America’s STEM workforce, we must first understand the root causes of underrepresentation and the ongoing challenges these groups face,” Greg Babe, the president and chief executive officer of the Bayer Corp., which sponsored the survey, said in a press release. “We want to knock down these barriers.”

Harder Row to Hoe

The Bayer Corp. survey results were based on an online and telephone survey of 1,226 female and “underrepresented minority” chemists and chemical engineers who are members of the American Chemical Society, including white and Asian women, as well as African-American, Hispanic, and American Indian men and women.

Conducted by Pittsburgh-based research firm Campos Inc., the survey has a statistical reliability of plus or minus 3 percentage points at a 95 percent confidence level.

Nearly two-thirds of those polled said underrepresentation of women and minorities exists in the companies or organizations they work for. Also, nearly three-quarters of those chemists and chemical engineers said they believe it is harder for women to succeed in their field than for men, and two-thirds think it’s more difficult for minorities to succeed than nonminorities.

About 40 percent of the respondents said they had been discouraged in their aspirations to pursue a career in the STEM fields, with college being the place where 60 percent experienced that attitude, followed by 41 percent indicating high school and 35 percent the workplace.

One white female midcareer scientist said in the survey: “I was told at one point that I was a token and that I would never make it. I knew I’d have to work extra hard to be three times as good to be respected.”

Among the specific precollegiate barriers to pursuing STEM studies the respondents identified were a lack of mentors, a lack of role models, stereotypes discouraging girls and minorities, and a lack of self-confidence.

On the flip side, when asked about the most significant positive factor to encourage their pursuit of precollegiate STEM studies, the most common was a strong personal interest in science, followed by supportive parents or family members, an inspiring or dedicated teacher, and self-confidence.

Among the most common advice the respondents offered to precollegiate teachers to foster STEM studies were encouraging and supporting an interest in and passion for science, offering more hands-on science experiences to students, teaching without bias, and ensuring their own proficiency in science and science education.

Power of Stereotypes

The study by the American Association of University Women did not involve new research, but brought together a variety of existing research findings.

The purpose of the report was to help “translate academic research” on why so few girls and women work in the STEM professions for a “lay audience, and also to offer recommendations that parents, teachers, PTA members, anybody really, can put into practice,” said Christianne M. Corbett, a research associate at the AAUW who was a co-author of the study.

“There’s a lot of academic research that goes on,” she said in an interview, “but it doesn’t get out of the academy.”

One research finding the report highlights is that when teachers and parents tell girls that their intelligence can expand with experience and learning, they in turn do better on math tests and are more likely to say that they want to continue to study the subject in the future. In addition, other research finds that “negative stereotypes about girls’ abilities in math can measurably lower girls’ test performance.”

“People are affected by stereotypes; it affects their achievement,” said Ms. Corbett. “Just describing that to students can actually make the effect go away.”

She added, “Also, exposing girls to successful role models can help counter negative stereotypes.”

The report also points to research suggesting that such stereotypes can lower girls’ aspirations for science and engineering careers over time.

The study does point out that “one of the largest gender differences in cognitive abilities is found in the area of spatial skills, with boys and men consistently outperforming girls and women.” Those skills are widely seen as important for success in engineering and other scientific fields.

But research highlighted in the report documents that individuals’ spatial skills “consistently improve dramatically in a short time with a simple training course.”

Overall, Ms. Corbett argues, the new report offers “good news” for those concerned about overcoming barriers for girls and women to pursue the STEM fields in greater numbers.

“It gives us practical things we can do,” she said. “This issue of underrepresentation of women is made up of a lot of small things.”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 31, 2010 edition of Education Week


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