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• T. Ly nn Fountain, principal research scientist, Signature Technology Laboratory, Georgia Tech Research Institute; past president and vice president-program, AAUW of Georgia; and past president of the AAUW Atlanta (GA) Branch
• Bar bar a Gault, executive director and vice president, Institute for Women’s Policy Research
• Yolanda S. George, deputy director of education and human resources programs, American Association for the Advancement of Science
• Gail Hac kett, provost and executive vice chancellor for academic affairs and professor of counseling and educational psychology, University of Missouri, Kansas City
• Diane F. Halp er n, professor of psychology, Claremont McKenna College, and past president, American Psychological Association
• Alice Ho gan, retired program director, ADVANCE program, National Science Foundation, and independent consultant for programs and policies to advance the participation of women in academic science and engineering
• R uta S e vo, independent consultant and former senior program director for research on gender in science and engineering, National Science Foundation
• Marger y S ul livan, biologist, Laboratory of Malaria Vector Research, National Institutes of Health; longtime member of AAUW; and AAUW Program Committee member
• K aren L. Tonso, associate professor of educational foundations, Wayne State University, and former reservoir engineer in the petroleum industry
• V irginia Valian, co-director of the Hunter College Gender Equity Project and Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Linguistics at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center
C h r i S T i A n n E Co r b E T T is a research associate at AAUW and co-author of Where the Girls Are: The Facts About Gender Equity in Education (2008). Before coming to AAUW, she worked as a legislative fellow in the office of Rep. Carolyn Maloney and as a mechanical design engineer in the aerospace industry. She holds a master’s degree in cultural anthropology from the University of Colorado, Boulder, and bachelor’s degrees in aerospace engineering and government from the University of Notre Dame. As a Peace Corps volunteer in Ghana from 1992 to 1994, she taught math and science to secondary school students.
A n d r E S S E S T. r o S E, E d. d., is a research associate at AAUW, where she focuses on gender equity in education and the workplace. Before joining the AAUW staff, she worked as an academic counselor at Northeastern University in Boston and taught high school math and biology at the International School of Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. She is a co-author of Where the Girls Are: The Facts About Gender Equity in Education (2008). She has a doctoral degree in education policy from George Washington University, a master’s degree in higher education administration from Boston College, and a bachelor’s degree in biology from Hamilton College.
xii AAUW Executive Summary The number of women in science and engineering is growing, yet men continue to outnumber women, especially at the upper levels of these professions. In elementary, middle, and high school, girls and boys take math and science courses in roughly equal numbers, and about as many girls as boys leave high school prepared to pursue science and engineering majors in college. Yet fewer women than men pursue these majors. Among first-year college students, women are much less likely than men to say that they intend to major in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM). By graduation, men outnumber women in nearly every science and engineering field, and in some, such as physics, engineering, and computer science, the difference is dramatic, with women earning only 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees. Women’s representation in science and engineering declines further at the graduate level and yet again in the transition to the workplace.
Drawing on a large and diverse body of research, this report presents eight recent research findings that provide evidence that social and environmental factors contribute to the underrepresentation of women in science and engineering. The rapid increase in the number of girls achieving very high scores on mathematics tests once thought to measure innate ability suggests that cultural factors are at work. Thirty years ago there were 13 boys for every girl who scored above 700 on the SAT math exam at age 13; today that ratio has shrunk to about 3:1.
This increase in the number of girls identified as “mathematically gifted” suggests that education can and does make a difference at the highest levels of mathematical achievement. While biological gender differences, yet to be well understood, may play a role, they clearly are not the whole story.
G i rl s’ Achievem ent s and i nterest in M ath an d S c ien ce Are Shap e d by t he Environm ent a ro u n d Th em This report demonstrates the effects of societal beliefs and the learning environment on girls’ achievements and interest in science and math. One finding shows that when teachers and parents tell girls that their intelligence can expand with experience and learning, girls do better on math tests and are more likely to say they want to continue to study math in the future.
That is, believing in the potential for intellectual growth, in and of itself, improves outcomes.
This is true for all students, but it is particularly helpful for girls in mathematics, where negative stereotypes persist about their abilities. By creating a “growth mindset” environment, teachers and parents can encourage girls’ achievement and interest in math and science.
Does the stereotype that boys are better than girls in math and science still affect girls today?
Research profiled in this report shows that negative stereotypes about girls’ abilities in math can indeed measurably lower girls’ test performance. Researchers also believe that stereotypes AAUW xiv can lower girls’ aspirations for science and engineering careers over time. When test administrators tell students that girls and boys are equally capable in math, however, the difference in performance essentially disappears, illustrating that changes in the learning environment can improve girls’ achievement in math.
The issue of self-assessment, or how we view our own abilities, is another area where cultural factors have been found to limit girls’ interest in mathematics and mathematically challenging careers. Research profiled in the report finds that girls assess their mathematical abilities lower than do boys with similar mathematical achievements. At the same time, girls hold themselves to a higher standard than boys do in subjects like math, believing that they have to be exceptional to succeed in “male” fields. One result of girls’ lower self-assessment of their math ability—even in the face of good grades and test scores—and their higher standards for performance is that fewer girls than boys aspire to STEM careers. By emphasizing that girls and boys achieve equally well in math and science, parents and teachers can encourage girls to assess their skills more accurately.
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. Spatial skills are considered by many people to be important for success in engineering and other scientific fields. Research highlighted in this report, however, documents that individuals’ spatial skills consistently improve dramatically in a short time with a simple training course. If girls grow up in an environment that enhances their success in science and math with spatial skills training, they are more likely to develop their skills as well as their confidence and consider a future in a STEM field.
At Co l l e g e s and U niver s it ies, l it tle Ch an g es Can M ake a b ig d i f fe re nce i n At t rac t ing and r et a in in g Wo men in STEM The foundation for a STEM career is laid early in life, but scientists and engineers are made in colleges and universities. Research profiled in this report demonstrates that small improvements by physics and computer science departments, such as providing a broader overview of the field in introductory courses, can add up to big gains in female student recruitment and retention. Likewise, colleges and universities can attract more female science and engineering faculty if they improve departmental culture to promote the integration of female faculty.
Research described in this report provides evidence that women are less satisfied with the academic workplace and more likely to leave it earlier in their careers than their male counterparts are. College and university administrators can recruit and retain more women by implementing mentoring programs and effective work-life policies for all faculty members.
Why So Few? xv b i a s, o f te n U ncons cious, lim i ts Wo men’s Pro gress in S ci e nt i f i c and Engineer ing Fie ld s Most people associate science and math fields with “male” and humanities and arts fields with “female,” according to research examined in this report. Implicit bias is common, even among individuals who actively reject these stereotypes. This bias not only affects individuals’ attitudes toward others but may also influence girls’ and women’s likelihood of cultivating their own interest in math and science. Taking the implicit bias test at https://implicit.harvard.edu can help people identify and understand their biases so that they can work to compensate for them.
Not only are people more likely to associate math and science with men than with women, people often hold negative opinions of women in “masculine” positions, like scientists or engineers. Research profiled in this report shows that people judge women to be less competent than men in “male” jobs unless they are clearly successful in their work. When a woman is clearly competent in a “masculine” job, 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. If women and men in science and engineering know that this bias exists, they can work to interrupt the unconscious thought processes that lead to it. It may also help women specifically to know that if they encounter social disapproval in their role as a computer scientist or physicist, it is likely not personal and there are ways to counteract it.
The striking disparity between the numbers of men and women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics has often been considered as evidence of biologically driven gender differences in abilities and interests. The classical formulation of this idea is that men “naturally” excel in mathematically demanding disciplines, whereas women “naturally” excel in fields using language skills. Recent gains in girls’ mathematical achievement, however, demonstrate the importance of culture and learning environments in the cultivation of abilities and interests. To diversify the STEM fields we must take a hard look at the stereotypes and biases that still pervade our culture. Encouraging more girls and women to enter these vital fields will require careful attention to the environment in our classrooms and workplaces and throughout our culture.
Defined by occupation, the United States science and engineering workforce totaled between 4.3 and 5.8 million 1 people in 2006. Those in science and engineering occupations who had bachelor’s degrees were estimated at between
4.3 and 5.0 million. The National Science Foundation includes social scientists but not medical professionals in these estimates (National Science Board, 2010). Estimates of the size of the scientific, engineering, and technological workforce are produced using different criteria by several U.S. government agencies including the Census Bureau, the National Science Foundation, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Defined more broadly, the size of the STEM workforce has been estimated to exceed 21 million people.
AAUW 2 some of the largest increases will be in engineering- and computer-related fields—fields in which women currently hold one-quarter or fewer positions (Lacey & Wright, 2009; National Science Board, 2010).
Attracting and retaining more women in the STEM workforce will maximize innovation, creativity, and competitiveness. Scientists and engineers are working to solve some of the most vexing challenges of our time—finding cures for diseases like cancer and malaria, tackling global warming, providing people with clean drinking water, developing renewable energy sources, and understanding the origins of the universe. Engineers design many of the things we use daily—buildings, bridges, computers, cars, wheelchairs, and X-ray machines. When women are not involved in the design of these products, needs and desires unique to women may be overlooked. For example, “some early voice-recognition systems were calibrated to typical male voices. As a result, women’s voices were literally unheard.... Similar cases are found in many other industries. For instance, a predominantly male group of engineers tailored the first generation of automotive airbags to adult male bodies, resulting in avoidable deaths for women and children” (Margolis & Fisher, 2002, pp. 2–3). With a more diverse workforce, scientific and technological products, services, and solutions are likely to be better designed and more likely to represent all users.
The opportunity to pursue a career in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics is also a matter of pay equity. Occupational segregation accounts for the majority of the wage gap (AAUW Educational Foundation, 2007), and although women still earn less than men earn in science and engineering fields, as they do on average in the overall workforce, women in science and engineering tend to earn more than women earn in other sectors of the workforce.
According to a July 2009 survey, the average starting salary for someone with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, for example, was just over $59,000. By comparison, the average starting salary for an individual with a bachelor’s degree in economics was just under $50,000 (National Association of Colleges and Employers, 2009).
P r E PA r AT i o n o F G i r l S F o r S T E M F i E l d S