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Why So Few? Barriers to Women’s Participation in STEM, and How Science Centers Can Help

By Andresse St. Rose
From ASTC Dimensions
March/April 2011

Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) are critical to the economies of the United States and nations around the world. Therefore, expanding and developing the STEM workforce is a crucial issue for governments, industry leaders, and educators. For example, although women and girls in the United States have made tremendous progress in science and math performance and participation over the last few decades, girls are less likely than boys to declare a STEM major in college, and women remain underrepresented in many STEM occupations (National Science Foundation, 2009).

Many science professionals report that it was an informal science experience that piqued their interest in science and fueled their decision to pursue a science career (COSMOS Corporation, 1998). These reports indicate that informal science education plays a pivotal role in producing the scientists, engineers, and technicians of the future. In this role, science centers and museums must also focus on how to increase participation in STEM activities of underrepresented groups, including girls and women.

As part of our mission, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) has supported women’s and girls’ participation in STEM fields for generations through philanthropy, advocacy, programming, and research. Our latest research report, Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (2010), profiles research that demonstrates how social and environmental factors—including stereotypes, cultural beliefs, and implicit bias—act as barriers to girls’ and women’s full participation in these fields. The report also provides recommendations for practice.

What research tells us

Studies using U.S. samples show that negative stereotypes about girls’ math abilities persist, although gender differences in performance no longer exist. There is no longer a gender difference in average math performance in the general school population (Hyde et al., 2008) and in high school, on average, girls and boys take an equal number of math and science credits, and girls earn higher grades (Shettle et al., 2007). In Why So Few?, we profile research that shows that negative stereotypes about girls’ abilities in math can have a measurably negative effect on girls’ math test performance through a phenomenon known as stereotype threat (Spencer, Steele, and Quinn, 1999). Stereotype threat may also help explain why fewer girls than boys express interest in and aspirations for careers in mathematically demanding fields. Girls may attempt to reduce the likelihood that they will be judged based on a negative stereotype by saying they are not interested and avoiding math and science, including informal science experiences.

The cultural belief that science and math are male domains also acts as a barrier to girls’ and women’s participation in these fields. Research finds that among U.S. high school students with similar math achievement measured by grades and test scores, girls assess their math abilities lower than boys (Correll, 2001). In fact, when cultural beliefs about male superiority exist in any area—even when a researcher invents a fictitious skill and tells subjects that males are better at it—girls assess their abilities in that area lower, judge themselves by a higher standard, and express less interest in pursuing a career in that area than boys do (Correll, 2004). These findings support the position that cultural beliefs about gender can influence our self-assessments more than actual performance does and contribute to fewer girls than boys aspiring to STEM careers.

Girls often report lower confidence than boys do in their math and science abilities (Pajares, 2005). In part, boys develop greater confidence in STEM because they are more likely to have opportunities to develop relevant skills. Several studies show that gender differences in self-confidence disappear when variables such as previous achievement or opportunity to learn are controlled (Pajares, 2005). For example, one of the largest gender differences in cognitive abilities is found in the area of spatial skills, where boys and men consistently outperform girls and women. Many activities that build spatial skills have a certain degree of gender bias favoring males. These include construction activities, mechanics, and 3-D computer games. Spatial skills are important for success in engineering, computer science, and other scientific fields, and many believe that they are innate. However, research shows that spatial skills can improve dramatically in a short time with training (Sorby, 2009). If girls are provided with more opportunities to develop their spatial skills early on, that can boost their confidence and increase the likelihood that they will consider a future in a STEM field.

Research also shows that even people who consciously reject negative stereotypes about women and girls in science and math can hold those beliefs at an unconscious level. Over 70 percent of test-takers from the United States and around the world who completed a gender-science implicit association test more readily associated “male” with science and “female” with arts than the reverse (Nosek, Banaji, and Greenwald, 2002). These unconscious beliefs decrease the likelihood that girls will identify with and participate in math and science in school and contributes to bias against women and girls in STEM.

What science centers and museums can do

The key findings outlined in our report provide several recommendations for practice in and beyond the classroom to promote girls’ participation in science and math. In particular, science centers and museums can:

  • Expose girls and boys to successful female role models in STEM. When students learn about, or interact with, women in STEM, it helps to contradict negative stereotypes.
  • Help counteract the misconception held by some that science and math are more appropriate for boys than girls by educating students about what different STEM fields involve and explaining that both men and women can be scientists and engineers.
  • Foster a supportive, stereotype-free learning environment to build girls’ interest and confidence. To create such learning environments, science centers must work to understand how bias works at both personal and organizational levels. Educators can use free online tools such as the implicit bias test to examine if they hold unconscious biases and consider the influence their biases may have on their instruction, use of examples, and interactions with students.
  • Provide opportunities for participants to develop their spatial skills and make sure girls participate. Create activities that allow children to play with construction toys and mechanical tools. Girls and boys with good spatial skills may be more confident about their abilities and express greater interest in pursuing STEM subjects and careers.
  • Ensure that women are represented in all exhibitions and not just those with female-themed topics. Unconscious beliefs about what a scientist or engineer looks like may mean that women and girls are underrepresented in exhibit materials or are portrayed mainly in auxiliary roles.

Recent research confirms that stereotypes and bias continue to influence girls’ interest in science and math. Science centers and museums can contribute to building a diverse scientific workforce by encouraging all children to pursue their interests and build confidence in these fields.

Andresse St. Rose is senior researcher at the American Association of University Women (AAUW) and co-author, along with Catherine Hill and Christianne Corbett, of AAUW’s 2010 research report Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.

References

Correll, S.J. “Gender and the career choice process: The role of biased self-assessments.” American Journal of Sociology, vol. 106, no. 6, 1691–1730 (2001).

Correll, S.J. “Constraints into preferences: Gender, status, and emerging career aspirations.” American Sociological Review, vol. 69, no. 1, 93–113 (2004).

COSMOS Corporation. A Report on the Evaluation of the National Science Foundation’s Informal Science Education Program. Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation, 1998.

Hyde, J.S., et al. “Gender similarities characterize math performance.” Science, vol. 321, 494–495 (2008).

Nosek, B.A., M.R. Banaji, and A.G. Greenwald. “Harvesting implicit group attitudes and beliefs from a demonstration web site.” Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, vol. 6, no. 1, 101–15 (2002).

Pajares, F. “Gender differences in mathematics self-efficacy beliefs.” In A.M. Gallagher & J.C. Kaufman, eds., Gender Differences in Mathematics: An Integrative Psychological Approach. Boston: Cambridge University Press, 2005, 294–315.

Shettle, C., et al. The Nation’s Report Card: America’s High School Graduates: Results from the 2005 NAEP High School Transcript Study (NCES 2007-467). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2007.

Sorby, S.A. “Educational research in developing 3-D spatial skills for engineering students.” International Journal of Science Education, vol. 31, no. 3, 459–80 (2009).

Spencer, S.J., C.M. Steele, and D.M. Quinn. “Stereotype threat and women’s math performance.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 35, no. 1, 4–28 (1999).

Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering (NSF 09-305). Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation, 2009.