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Where the Girls Aren’t

Young women aren’t avoiding math and science because of a lack of preparation, a new study says. This finding may help researchers pursue other avenues to explain gender differences. Learn more.

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two young women working in a science lab

[Photo by Marsha Miller] 

Lack of math and science skills isn’t the reason few females choose STEM majors

Girls are not avoiding STEM majors and professions because they lack academic preparation or sufficient skills, according to a study from the College of Education.

The study is one of only a few to offer a thorough, critical assessment of nationally representative data on STEM which stands for science, technology, engineering and math skills attainment in high school and subsequent choice of major, broken down by gender. The acronym has become commonplace over the past 20 years as education and corporate leaders have expressed concern over a lack of qualified workers to fill the increasing number of STEM-related jobs.

Catherine Riegle-Crumb, assistant professor in the College of Education

Catherine Riegle-Crumb 

“Despite a dearth of empirical evidence, the belief doggedly persists that females don’t go into STEM majors and professions because they’ve received inadequate academic preparation or are incapable of mastering science and math material,” said Catherine Riegle-Crumb, assistant professor in the College of Education’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction and lead investigator for the study. “This research shows that that clearly isn’t the case and suggests that it’s time for scholars to investigate more promising avenues of inquiry.”

For the study, researchers looked at data from three nationally representative cohorts of college matriculates (the High School and Beyond Study, National Education Longitudinal Study and the Educational Longitudinal Study) that span the past three decades.

They examined multiple indicators of high school math and science achievement, focusing on students who later majored in math, physical science, engineering and computer science. Physical sciences and engineering were areas of special interest since those are majors in which gender disparities are the greatest.

Data indicated that students who were at the top of the test score distribution in high school math and science were most likely to decide on a STEM major. In this top tier of scores, male students did predominate, but, according to Riegle-Crumb, this advantage was in no way sufficient to explain their subsequent over-representation in physical science, engineering and computer science majors in college.

“When we looked at relative strengths between subjects rather than absolute levels of achievement, we noted that girls tended to outperform boys in English courses, for example, and to be the top scorers,” said Riegle-Crumb. “It’s not that they did poorly in high school math and science classes it’s that they did even better in English and have a comparative advantage.

“It’s important to emphasize that analyses of these large national data sets indicate that regardless of how we define or measure achievement in high school, the relatively small disparities between males and females found across all three cohorts does little to explain why so few females choose STEM majors. And this difference remains robust over time.”

Riegle-Crumb suggested that too much of the prior research on gender inequality in math and science exaggerates, or at least mis-specifies, the consequences of small gender differences on certain measures of achievement during primary and secondary schools. In doing so, the research may be inadvertently perpetuating gender stereotypes.

“I think we instead need to be asking, ‘What do females who are highly qualified in math and science find more attractive in the fields of study they choose, and, more importantly, why are these features more attractive to them,'” said Riegle-Crumb. “Females are making a choice for something, not just against STEM majors and professions.

“These choices could be due to social structures that are pervasive and lifelong and that are shaping their preferences and ideas about what girls do versus what boys do,” Riegle-Crumb added. “One of the most fascinating questions to answer is why and how some females resist cultural expectations and do pursue degrees in engineering.”

In addition to Riegle-Crumb the research team included sociology professor Chandra Muller, Florida International University assistant professor Barbara King, and University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Eric Grodsky. The study was published in the American Educational Research Journal.

This article first appeared on the College of Education’s Newsroom.