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Second, Weinberger (2005) found that the science and engineering workforce is not populated primarily by the highest-scoring math students, male or female. Less than one-third of college-educated white men in the engineering, math, computer science, and physical science workforce scored higher than 650 on the SAT math exam, and more than one-third had SAT math scores below 550—the math score of the average humanities major. Even though a correlation exists between high school math test scores and later entry into STEM education and careers, very high math scores are not necessarily a prerequisite for success in STEM fields.
“J u s t n o t i nteres ted ” Many girls and women report that they are not interested in science and engineering. In a 2009 poll of young people ages 8–17 by the American Society for Quality, 24 percent of boys but only 5 percent of girls said they were interested in an engineering career. Another recent poll found that 74 percent of college-bound boys ages 13–17 said that computer science or computing would be a good college major for them compared with 32 percent of their female peers (WGBH Education Foundation & Association for Computing Machinery, 2009). From early adolescence, girls express less interest in math or science careers than boys do (Lapan et al., 2000; Turner et al., 2008). Even girls and women who excel in mathematics often do not pursue STEM fields. In studies of high mathematics achievers, for example, women are more likely to secure degrees in the humanities, life sciences, and social sciences than in math, computer science, engineering, or the physical sciences; the reverse is true for men (Lubinski & Benbow, 2006).
Interest in an occupation is influenced by many factors, including a belief that one can succeed in that occupation (Eccles [Parsons] et al., 1983; Correll, 2004; Eccles, 2006). The work of
Pajares (2005) found that gender differences in self-confidence in STEM subjects begin in middle school and increase in high school and college, with girls reporting less confidence than boys do in their math and science ability. In part, boys develop greater confidence in STEM through experience developing relevant skills. A number of studies have shown that gender differences in self-confidence disappear when variables such as previous achievement or opportunity to learn are controlled (Lent et al., 1986; Zimmerman & Martinez-Pons, 1990;
Cooper & Robinson, 1991; Pajares, 1996, 2005). Students who lack confidence in their math or science skills are less likely to engage in tasks that require those skills and will more quickly give up in the face of difficulty. Girls and women may be especially vulnerable to losing confidence in STEM areas. The research of Carol Dweck, profiled in chapter 2, has implications for improving self-confidence. Dweck’s research shows that when a girl believes that she can become smarter and learn what she needs to know in STEM subjects—as opposed to believing that a person is either born with science and math ability or not—she is more likely to succeed in a STEM field.
A belief that one can succeed in a STEM field is important but is not the only factor in establishing interest in a STEM career. Culturally prescribed gender roles also influence occupational interest (Low et al., 2005). A review of child vocational development by Hartung et al. (2005) found that children—and girls especially—develop beliefs that they cannot pursue particular occupations because they perceive them as inappropriate for their gender.
Jacquelynne Eccles, a leading researcher in the field of occupational choice, has spent the past 30 years developing a model and collecting evidence about career choice. Her work suggests that occupational choice is influenced by a person’s values as well as expectancy for success (Eccles [Parsons] et al., 1983; Eccles, 1994, 2006). Well-documented gender differences exist in the value that women and men place on doing work that contributes to society, with women more likely than men to prefer work with a clear social purpose ( Jozefowicz et al., 1993;
Konrad et al., 2000; Margolis et al., 2002; Lubinski & Benbow, 2006; Eccles, 2006). The source of this gender difference is a subject of debate: Some claim that the difference is innate, while others claim that it is a result of gender socialization. Regardless of the origin of the difference, most people do not view STEM occupations as directly benefiting society or individuals (National Academy of Engineering, 2008; Diekman et al., 2009). As a result, STEM careers often do not appeal to women (or men) who value making a social contribution AAUW 22 (Eccles, 1994; Sax, 1994). Certain STEM subdisciplines with a clearer social purpose, such as biomedical engineering and environmental engineering, have succeeded in attracting higher percentages of women than have other subdisciplines like mechanical or electrical engineering (Gibbons, 2009).
Despite girls’ lower stated interest in science and engineering compared with boys, recent research suggests that there are ways to increase girls’ interest in STEM areas (Turner & Lapan, 2005; Eisenhart, 2008; Plant et al., 2009). Plant et al. (2009) reported an increase in middle school girls’ interest in engineering after the girls were exposed to a 20-minute narrative delivered by a computer-generated female agent describing the lives of female engineers and the benefits of engineering careers. The narrative included positive statements about students’ abilities to meet the demands of engineering careers and counteracted stereotypes of engineering as an antisocial, unusual career for women while emphasizing the people-oriented and socially beneficial aspects of engineering. Another ongoing study and outreach project is focusing on educating high-achieving, mostly minority, high school girls about what scientists and engineers actually do and how they contribute to society. Although the girls knew almost nothing about engineering at the start of the study, of the 66 percent of girls still participating after two years, 80 percent were seriously considering a career in engineering (Eisenhart, 2008). The Engineer Your Life website (www.engineeryourlife.com), a project of the WGBH Educational Foundation and the National Academy of Engineering, has also been shown to increase high school girls’ interest in pursuing engineering as a career. In a survey by Paulsen and Bransfield (2009), 88 percent of 631 girls said that the website made them more interested in engineering as a career, and 76 percent said that it inspired them to take an engineering course in college. Although these studies generally relied on small samples and in a number of cases no long-term follow-up has been done with participants, the results are promising.
Research on interest in science and engineering does not usually consider gender, race, and ethnicity simultaneously. Of course, gender and race do interact to create different cultural roles and expectations for women (and men) from different racial-ethnic backgrounds.
Assumptions about the mismatch between women’s interests and STEM often are based on the experiences of white women. In the African American community, for example, many of the characteristics that are considered appropriate for African American women, such as high self-esteem, independence, and assertiveness, can lead to success in STEM fields (Hanson, 2004). Young African American women express more interest in STEM fields than do young white women (Hanson, 2004; Fouad & Walker, 2005). The number of African American women in STEM remains low, however, suggesting that other barriers are important for this community (ibid.).
Workplace environment In the study of STEM professionals in the private sector described earlier, Hewlett et al.
(2008) found that many women appear to encounter a series of challenges at midcareer that contribute to their leaving careers in STEM industries. Women cited feelings of isolation, an unsupportive work environment, extreme work schedules, and unclear rules about advancement and success as major factors in their decision to leave. Although women and men in industry and business leave STEM careers at significantly different rates, the situation in academia is somewhat more nuanced. In a recent study on attrition among STEM faculty, Xu (2008) showed that female and male faculty leave at similar rates; however, women are more likely than men to consider changing jobs within academia. Women’s higher turnover intention in academia (which is the best predictor of actual turnover) is mainly due to dissatisfaction with departmental culture, advancement opportunities, faculty leadership, and research support. Goulden et al. (2009) compared men and women in the sciences who are married with children and found that the women were 35 percent less likely to enter a tenure-track position after receiving a doctorate.
Bias Women in STEM fields can experience bias that negatively influences their progress and participation. Although instances of explicit bias may be decreasing, implicit bias continues to have an adverse effect. Implicit biases may reflect, be stronger than, or in some cases contradict explicitly held beliefs or values. Therefore, even individuals who espouse a belief of gender equity and equality may harbor implicit biases about gender and, hence, negative gender stereotypes about women and girls in science and math (Valian, 1998). Nosek et al. (2002a) found that majorities of both women and men of all racial-ethnic groups hold a strong implicit association of male with science and female with liberal arts. This research is profiled in chapter 8.
Research has also pointed to bias in peer review (Wenneras & Wold, 1997) and hiring (Steinpreis et al., 1999; Trix & Psenka, 2003). For example, Wenneras and Wold found that a female postdoctoral applicant had to be significantly more productive than a male applicant to receive the same peer review score. This meant that she either had to publish at least three more papers in a prestigious science journal or an additional 20 papers in lesser-known specialty journals to be judged as productive as a male applicant. The authors concluded that the AAUW 24 systematic underrating of female applicants could help explain the lower success rate of female scientists in achieving high academic rank compared with their male counterparts.
Trix and Psenka (2003) found systematic differences in letters of recommendation for academic faculty positions for female and male applicants. The researchers concluded that recommenders (the majority of whom were men) rely on accepted gender schema in which, for example, women are not expected to have significant accomplishments in a field like academic medicine. Letters written for women are more likely to refer to their compassion, teaching, and effort as opposed to their achievements, research, and ability, which are the characteristics highlighted for male applicants. While nothing is wrong with being compassionate, trying hard, and being a good teacher, arguably these traits are less valued than achievements, research, and ability for success in academic medicine. The authors concluded, “Recommenders unknowingly used selective categorization and perception, also known as stereotyping, in choosing what features to include in their profiles of the female applicants” (p. 215).
Research profiled in chapter 9 shows that when women are acknowledged as successful in arenas that are considered male in character, women are less well liked and more personally derogated than are equivalently successful men. Being disliked can affect career outcomes, leading to lower evaluations and less access to organizational rewards. These results suggest that gender stereotypes can prompt bias in evaluative judgments of women in male-dominated environments, even when these women have proved themselves to be successful and demonstrated their competence (Heilman et al., 2004).
Biases do change. Today the fields viewed as stereotypically male have narrowed considerably compared with even 30 years ago. Life and health sciences are seen as more appropriate for women, while the physical or hard sciences and engineering fields are still considered masculine domains (Farenga & Joyce, 1999).
Famil y resp onsibilit ies Many people think that women leave STEM academic careers because they cannot balance work and family responsibilities (Mason et al., 2009; Xie & Shauman, 2003); however, research evidence by Xu (2008) points to a more nuanced relationship between family responsibilities and academic STEM careers. Research shows that being single is a good predictor that a woman will be hired for a tenure-track job and promoted. Research also shows, however, that marriage is a good predictor for both women and men of being hired as an assistant professor (Xie & Shauman, 2003; Ginther & Kahn, 2006). Married women in STEM appear to have a disadvantage compared with married men in relation to tenure and promotion decisions only if the married women have children (Xie & Shauman, 2003).
Some telling statistics point to the difficulties that mothers still face in an academic environment. Mason and Goulden (2002) found that among tenured faculty in the sciences 12 to 14 years after earning a doctorate, 70 percent of the men but only 50 percent of the women had children living in their home. The same study found that among science professors who had babies within the first five years after receiving a doctorate, 77 percent of the men but only 53 percent of the women had achieved tenure 12 to 14 years after earning a doctorate. These disparities were not unique to, and not always worse in, STEM fields. In another Mason and Goulden study (2004), more than twice as many female academics (38 percent) as male academics (18 percent) indicated that they had fewer children than they had wanted.