Background Research

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), jobs related to STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics – are expected to grow to more than 9 million between 2012 and 2022.  That’s an increase of approximately 1 million jobs.  Unfortunately, a majority of these jobs will be filled by men.  Over the past 15 years, the number of computer science degrees earned by women have gone from 37 percent in 1985 to only 18 percent in 2010.  And only one-fifth of the physics Ph.D.’s has been awarded to women.  The question is why.  A common misconception is that young girls don’t feel they can become scientists.  In this study, we explore this theory.

In the elementary years, girls do just as well as boys in mathematics and science.  And, in some cases, girls even perform better than boys.  Math is quite often listed as a favorite subject in school and just as many girls as boys declare an interest in math and science when they complete high school.  But, it is already evident in the first years of college that girls are choosing not to pursue a career in STEM.  And the graduation numbers dramatically decline with women only 20 percent of the bachelor’s degrees.

Much of the evidence points to popular culture convincing girls that they don’t belong in these fields.  They’ve been told over and over again that STEM careers are for boys.  They are told that they should not or could not do math so they don’t put in the extra effort to practice it.  And if you don’t practice it, you won’t be good at it.  Girls, on the other hand, find lots of support for non-STEM careers.  

Even if a woman decides the pursue a degree in math or science, often they find that they are the only women in a class of men.  That can be very intimidating.  They view their math and science abilities worse than men and their confidence is low and so they make a mad dash for a “safer” option.

Research also shows that people judge women to be less competent than men in “male” jobs.  And, when a woman is successful, she is considered to be less likable. Because both likability and competence are needed for success in the workplace, women in STEM fields can find themselves in a double bind.  Even today, women feel underappreciated, are paid less and made to feel incompetent when working in careers seen as masculine.  So, they leave these fields in large numbers.

If women are choosing non-science fields, why should we care?  With the lack of women in STEM, we are lacking the perspectives of half the world’s population.  We should care because much of the products brought to industry out of science, technology, engineering and mathematics will be developed from a male perspective.  And no matter how altruistic and empathic the male view is, it is still a male view.  Bringing women in to STEM, we include new ideas and unique solutions to new problems.


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