College & Workforce Readiness

What’s Keeping Women Out of Science, Math Careers? Calculus and Confidence

By Liana Loewus — August 03, 2016 2 min read
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It’s well-known there’s a gender gap within science, technology, engineering, and math majors and careers, and a new study traces the moment many women give up on STEM to a single college class: calculus.

The study, published in PLOS One last month, found that women are 1.5 times more likely to drop out of the STEM pipeline after Calculus I than men are. And that’s likely because women, when compared to men of similar capabilities, tend to start and end the course with lower confidence in their math skills. (During the course itself, men and women lose math confidence at about the same rate.)

“This work points to female students’ mathematical confidence entering college as a major contributing factor to women’s participation in the STEM workforce,” write the researchers, who are from Colorado State University and San Diego State University, “and thus more work is needed to understand the factors (such as classroom environment, home environment, extra curricular involvement, etc.,) that help to shape students’ perceptions of their own success before they enter college.”

Previous studies have pointed to gender gaps in confidence starting at a young age. Boys were more likely than girls to say they could learn computer science, according to a Google study. And results from the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, show that girls are more likely to report feeling math anxiety than boys.

A Different STEM Workforce

The recent study looked at survey results from about 5,000 college students. The researchers asked students who switched out of STEM after Calculus I why they made that decision. Thirty-five percent of women who previously had intended to pursue STEM fields said they did not understand the Calculus I material well enough to take Calculus II. Just 14 percent of men who switched out said the same.

But according to their grades, those men and women performed similarly: 16 percent of those men and 19 percent of those women reported having gotten grades that weren’t good enough to allow them to move on to Calculus II.

The study also found that if women stayed in STEM at the same rate as men after Calculus I, the effect on the job market would be significant: Instead of making up a quarter of the STEM workforce, as they do now, women would make up 37 percent of it.

Looking at K-12

As the study notes, calculus isn’t the only place female students are dissuaded from pursuing STEM. Between 4th and 12th grade, girls’ interest in STEM drops off, while boys’ seems to increase. Then between 12th grade and freshman year in college, interest among both sexes takes a dive.

Interestingly, a look at the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights data from 2013-14 shows that high school calculus classes have about equal numbers of boys and girls in them (51 percent to 49 percent, respectively). And the decrease in STEM interest is sharper for girls than boys between 12th grade and freshman year in college. So maybe calculus—and confidence in it—are partly to blame there as well?

Image: Getty


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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.